By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

Less than two years after the devastating loss of a major employer in the area, Clearwater is building itself another promising specialty industry, this one as a destination wedding location, and a $250,000 cheque from the Province may really get the party started.

Funding from the B.C. government will enable the installation of new windows, doors, solar panels and a heated, covered deck, making the Clearwater lodge a more appealing wedding venue once the industry opens up again. / DANIELA WIUNIG

“It’s a huge grant,” said Daniela Wiunig, president of the Clearwater Ski Club. “It’s exciting, just phenomenal.”

Funding to the Clearwater Ski Club and Clearwater lodge, announced by the Province last month, is part of a $90 million community economic recovery infrastructure program to support economic resilience, tourism, heritage, and economic development in communities across B.C.

The $250,000 grant will help upgrade infrastructure, and expand capacity for year-round events at the Clearwater ski lodge, particularly weddings, as well as, protect and maintain ski hill resources.

“The lodge is a big asset to the community. It’s a huge building. It’s a beautiful place. But it needs an update,” said Wiunig. “This grant allows us to invest in maintenance and make it better.”

The lodge is a community anchor, said Stephanie Molina, executive director of Tourism Wells Gray. “It’s a place where generations of people from our valley have celebrated important life events, and also stands as a wonderful opportunity to invite people outside of our community when the time is right.”

A non-profit, the Clearwater Ski Club and lodge are run entirely by volunteers, and it takes a year-round effort with regular fundraisers, community funding, and frequent grant-writing to keep the doors open and lights on”¦ literally.

“That has really been an uphill battle the past few years,” said Molina. The closing of the Canfor plant in the summer of 2019 hit Clearwater and the surrounding region hard, she said.

Fortunately, the Clearwater area, including Wells Gray Provincial Park and the North Thompson, was already a popular summer destination, drawing visitors for river rafting, kayaking, waterfall viewing, biking, and hiking, among other activities. And the lodge had long been the community gathering place for birthday parties, memorials, high school proms, business and community events, and of course, weddings.

The idea to present the lodge as year-round event venue for the destination wedding market was an inspired, if natural, step.

It began as a pilot project and took off from there, Molina said. “By the second year, all those spring, summer, and fall dates for weddings were completely booked, which was really amazing.”

When COVID hit, the lodge had been fully booked and all the weddings and events had to be cancelled or postponed.

“This infrastructure comes at a crucial moment,” said Molina. “When we really want to be able to maintain, preserve and enhance the structure so that it’s here for our community, it’s here for future generations, and also stands as a place and an opportunity to build this industry.”

The bulk of the funding will help modernize infrastructure and amenities at the lodge with the installation of new windows and doors, a floor, solar panels, and awning and propane heaters for an expanded deck.

Prior to the pandemic, Clearwater ski lodge had just begun getting attention as a destination wedding location. /HOLLY LOUWERSE

“In the wintertime, it’s nice to just sit there and watch skiers coming down,” said Wiunig. “Kids often make their own runs, they go through the forest, they find other trails, and build a jump here and there.”

The ski hill gets an average of 50 skiers a day, and sometimes up to 200 people. It has a half dozen runs or so, a bunny hill, and is “home of the fastest ‘T’ in the west” according to the ski hill website.

Part of the funding will help the club replace aging posts and lights on the hill, enabling expanded night skiing opportunities.

“This was a very big wish for the ski hill, the night skiing, because it’s so enjoyed by skiers of all ages and stages,” Wiunig said. “The night skiing is a highlight here.”

Overall, the funding will increase capacity for event rentals, which was about 150 people prior to COVID-19, and bring the lodge up to standard so it is a viable option for people booking weddings.

The upgrades will help keep the community moving towards its goal of securing a name for itself as a destination venue. Molina said this may be a great point to pivot and consider more broadly how the lodge and ski hill can be a place to benefit the economy and the community on a year round basis.

“Every industry becomes so important to a small community like this, especially when so many others have been threatened,” Molina said. “Tourism now, is one of the major pillars of the economy.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]