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November 14, 2018

Snow buy out

Scotland’s ski industry never seems very far from a crisis. If it’s not the warm wet winters failing to put that solid base-layer of snow on the slopes, there’s always the aging infrastructure that lifts the thousands of skiers to the mountain tops.  But for all that, skiing is still big business. And nowhere more so than in Aviemore, where a good season is worth £10m to the Speyside economy. Reports that the future viability of the resort is in jeopardy have galvanised the community and what would be the biggest and most complex buy-out yet is being planned.


Sandra Dick

Time is running out for the Cairngorm mountain resort – and the community that relies on what was once the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s winter sports scene is not prepared to stand by and let it happen.

Scotland’s largest and potentially most complex community buyout is being compiled in a bid to create a new, all-year-round attraction. The plans, by the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust, include building a network of summer mountain bike trails, an Alpine bobsleigh-style coaster, an education centre, and a self-sufficient hydro electric scheme.

But, most importantly, it is a way for the community to protect its livelihood amid mounting concerns over the future of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise-owned ski and snowboard resort, which has seen years of falling market share, and accusations of poor management and lack of investment.

The resort’s prospects for this winter have been dealt a major blow with confirmation that the £19.5 million funicular railway, which transports visitors from car park to upper slopes, is out of action amid safety concerns for the structure.

The funicular railway’s foundations are being inspected by specialist engineers who are due to report on its future next month. However, by then the winter weather is expected to make significant repair work unlikely until next spring.

Concerns over the railway’s future and the impact on snow sports enthusiasts who have already bought 2018/19 season tickets follows the dismantling of the resort’s chairlifts last autumn. That move sparked fury among snow sports enthusiasts and raised further questions over the management of the area at a time when rival centres appear to be flourishing.

If it was to go ahead, a community buyout would dwarf other land-grab projects in terms of scale and potential financial implications.

While numbers visiting Cairngorm for snow sports have fallen, with the resort’s market share sliding from 40.6 per cent in 2013 to 23.6 per cent last year, a buoyant winter season of skiing and snowboarding is estimated to be worth £10 million to the Speyside economy.

Community buyout campaigners say questions over the funicular railway – essential for transporting learner skiers and snowboarders to upper levels – plus a surprise decision by the HIE-appointed resort operator, Cheshire-based Natural Retreats, to close its ski school operation for the season, has brought the future of the mountain to a crossroads.

Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust director Mike Dearman said: “The operators’ announcement not to operate a ski school seems to say that they have no faith in their own ability to run skiing on the mountain.

“People are worried, but in some ways it has galvanised them. We believe there’s a positive future for Cairngorm snow sports, and some relatively small investment could move it forwards.”

The buyout proposals suggest AGCT could take over ownership of the land and assets from HIE, and inherit the 25-year lease deal with Natural Retreats. The community trust would then work with the operator to seek fresh funding streams, allowing HIE to revert to its traditional role of supporting the business and sustainable development.

It suggests an £860,000 investment in hydro-electric schemes at Coire Cas and Coire na Ciste which would provide an income stream plus power lifts and snow-making equipment.

A £1m snow factory would produce cover for lower slopes, while 6km of mountain bike trails and a year-round Alpine coaster – a winding track which would carry thrillseekers down the mountainside – would attract summer visitors, bringing much-needed investment and seasonal work.

Drew Hendry, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, said he would be “delighted” if a community buyout were to proceed.

“There needs to be a change,” he said. “Natural Retreats has lost the confidence of local people. Communication with the public has been awful. They have shown an inability to engage properly and there has been an unacceptable sequence of events from the closing of the ski school to a lack of information of the problems affecting the funicular.

“I would be delighted if [the buyout] was brought forward in a desirable timescale. However, we need action now and the community proposal would take some time to get together.”

He added: “I’ve contacted [Rural Economy Secretary] Fergus Ewing, and I am asking HIE and Natural Retreats to get around the table to sort something out. We can’t go through another season where we have got skiers in other resorts and not coming to Cairngorm.”

Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said: “The situation with the funicular has brought things to a head and prompted a lot of concerns. The conversation over who runs the mountain has gone on for over two years. While there is a community proposal, it’s one thing saying the current operators are not good enough, and another to come up with an alternative.”

Campaigners anxious to secure the future of snow sports in the area believe the time is right for the buyout.

Alan Brattey, of Aviemore Business Association, said: “I have no doubt that the Cairngorm mountain business will come to local businesses and the AGCT to manage. The plans they have are substantial and will drive forward the need for radical change.”

Questions have been raised over whether the funicular railway can be repaired and, if so, whether the repairs will enable the facility to run reliably for many years to come.

Susan Smith, business development manager at HIE, defended the management of the snow sport facility.

She said: “It’s been hard for the operator in many ways because there was a significant requirement initially to understand the mountain environment and business opportunity. Running a mountain business is tough and complex and requires significant amount of resources to get it right. We understand the frustration of the community.”

Smith added that the issues affecting the funicular railway were not foreseen. “This came up under a routine inspection. It’s a complex engineering structure and specialist bridge engineers need to look at it.

“Health and safety is paramount.”