In 2021, the Mt Hotham snow season lasted just four days.
“We knew we were done,” Mt Hotham’s chamber of commerce president Steve Belli said. “So we just shut up shop and rode it out.”
This, after trading lasted just two days in 2020.
But while the issue then was Covid and the restrictions around the pandemic, a different, albeit related, issue is threatening this season—key worker housing.
“There are businesses this year that cannot find a single bed for their staff,” Belli said.
“Existing shortfalls were made worse by Covid because people sold property as other people moved into the area to isolate because the rules weren’t as severe as they were in Melbourne.
“So they bought here and those properties came out of the long-term rental market.”
It means key worker accommodation options are now restricted to short-term rentals as the returns are greater. For businesses looking for workers across months not weeks, finding suitable, affordable accommodation for staff is becoming mission impossible.
But there is a glimmer of hope for the snowfield town with Altiset Property, the alpine development arm of Melbourne’s Grollo family, buying the Mt Hotham airport and indicating that it wants to build key worker housing on part of the 105ha site.
US mountain resort company Vail Resorts sold the airport to Altiset for $6.75 million. The Colorado-based Vail built the airport in 1999 for $17.5 million.
The airport component of the site is just 40ha, crucially leaving a considerable parcel of flat land around it for development, a rarity in the area.
The Alpine Shire is looking at other answers to the shortages, but it may take some time.
“We’re looking at industrial-zoned areas being rezoned to allow accommodation for staff, but it’s not going to happen this season,” Belli said.
“So it was very welcome news when we heard that Grollo was going to look at putting some staff accommodation down there.”
Vail Resorts said it was keen to sell the site to a buyer with experience in alpine development and business.
“The plans Altiset Property has for environmentally sustainable multi-function key worker and affordable group housing opportunities is another first of its kind in the Victorian Alpine Region,” Vail Resorts’ Mount Hotham Skiing Company general manager, Nathan Butterworth, said.
Grollo has development projects at Mt Hotham, including a four-chalet project and several residential and hotel projects at Mt Buller.
It also has other hotel and ski operations and infrastructure assets under its family group.
While some businesses already have their own worker accommodation, others are taking matters into their own hands.
“Some businesses have actually bought existing lodges to meet their requirement,” Belli said.
“This is a good Band-Aid fix but not a good long-term fix because it takes beds out of the tourist market ... so it has a consequence at a later stage.
“But there’s no other choice at this point and that is what’s driving these businessed to buy their own properties to house their staff.”
Grollo has indicated that designing and planning the key worker accommodation village will cost around $1 million and could take up to two years.
At 1298m above sea level, Hotham Airport is Australia’s highest commercial airport and that makes building a challenge at the best of times, let alone as the construction faces rising costs and workforce shortages.
“It is more expensive to build up here anyway,” Belli said.
“Transport costs are higher and you’ve also got fire ratings and other ratings costs as well.
“And just generally, as we all know, the cost of living has gone up and the cost of goods and materials are all pretty expensive now, so building costs have gone up exponentially.”
While Mt Hotham had a record season in 2022, this coming season could well be a struggle.
Last year until mid-July, Mt Hotham’s visitor numbers had reached 76,800, more than double the 10-year average of 31,594, with visitor days also more than doubling the 10-year average of 85,031 with 188,386.
“A lot of those people had properties up there or were members of clubs,” Belli said.
“They couldn’t get up there for two years so there was pent-up demand.”
Belli said that the issue was not restricted to Mt Hotham but rather was widespread.
“It’s not just unique to resorts; most tourist towns in Australia have some sort of similar issues,” he said.
“But it’s just the resorts are really down to zero available accommodation.”
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