In Isère, the torment of ski resorts facing the inevitable end

Gresse-en-Vercors (Isère), report

At the ski resort of Gresse-en-Vercors, less than an hour from Grenoble (Isère), the cannons, which produce artificial snow, are running at full speed. « Especially at off-peak hours », specifies Jean-Marc Bellot, the mayor of this town of 395 inhabitants located at an altitude of 1,200 meters. Located at the foot of Grand Veymont, between the Vercors and Trièves massifs, the small resort, which has 27 slopes, had to postpone its opening for a week and hopes to welcome skiers for the Christmas holidays. Many resorts in the Alps are dealing with lack of snow and rising electricity costs this winter. Not enough to really start their attachment to skiing, even if some elected officials, researchers and inhabitants try to push other models.

The artificial snow allowed the ski lifts to open on December 17 for the Christmas holidays. © Sophie Rodriguez / Reporterre

In Gresse-en-Vercors, soaring electricity prices — between 50 and 80 % — which will occur on 1is January 2023 should represent an amount of 35,000 to 80,000 additional euros for the Epic. This industrial and commercial public establishment was created by the town hall in 2020 to manage the station. To absorb these costs, a reduction in opening hours has been decided, as well as a contribution of 1.5 euros per pass sold. « One hour less operation of the ski lifts means 15 to 20,000 euros in electricity saved over the year », says the mayor. Seasonal workers will also pay the price with 21 recruitments this season against 27 in normal times. « These are complicated decisions, not made with a good heart. », assures Jean-Luc Jamoneau, tourism assistant and president of Epic.

Result of the referendum: the yes for the guns

The rise in the price of electricity further weakens an already exhausted model. Rising temperatures and shifting precipitation — due to the climate change — are responsible for the random snowfall that hits mid-mountains hard. Before being transferred to Epic in 2020, the operation of the estate had recorded a deficit of around 100,000 euros per year for almost twenty years, i.e. 10 % of municipal budget. Like many mid-altitude resorts, the response to these operating difficulties involved the installation of new snow cannons. Nine additional cannons were installed in the fall of 2021 on the heights of the estate. Their operation, associated with that of the forty-one guns already installed, represents approximately 40 % of the station’s electricity bill.

The increase in the price of electricity induces a colossal cost for the municipality of Gresse-en-Vercors: from 35,000 to 80,000 additional euros. © Sophie Rodriguez / Reporterre

In the village, this did not happen without a stir. Elected in 2020 at the head of a list defending a new vision for the territory and a desire to develop participatory democracy, Jean-Marc Bellot had to manage this file – legacy of the former municipal team. Opposed to the project, like a majority of its municipal council, it organized a referendum last spring. The inhabitants spoke out in favor of the cannons, frightened to see Gresse-en-Vercors follow in the footsteps of the station very close to the Col de l’Arzelier, closed definitively in 2018. At the time, the collective of young researchers Perce-Neige , which works on issues related to the mountains, intervened with the inhabitants to help them structure the debate. « No one wanted the end of the stationresituates Pierre-Alexandre Métral, member of the collective and doctoral student at the University of Grenoble-Alpes where he works on the subject of abandoned ski resorts. But the central question was to know if we made the choice to maximize the solutions or if we chose to move towards a more reasoned development. »

« The station is a nice piece of equipment, but we don’t want to keep putting all our money into it. » © Sophie Rodriguez / Reporterre

The installation of the nine snow cannons cost 500,000 euros, of which 200,000 euros were paid by the municipality. The rest is financed by the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and the department of Isère. And leaves a bitter taste to Jean-Marc Bellot, even if today he wants to look to the future. « With the resort’s opening season getting shorter, it’s not in winter that you can have the margin, but in the other seasons », says the mayor. It launched a reflection on the development of the summer season to attract visitors from the month of May around nature discovery activities. Created in line with the participatory approach that led to the election of Mr. Bellot, the collective of inhabitants of Gresse 2050 supports the approach. « Everywhere you look, there is underinvestment: there are no sidewalks, there are no cycle paths, the church is collapsing, the children are going to school in a prefab… The station is great equipment, but we don’t want to keep putting all our money into it », explains Emmanuel Rondeau, member of Gresse 2050. A coworking space opened its doors on December 15, supported by the town hall, which is also considering the development of a business incubator and an artisanal zone. Everyone wants a transition geared towards the inhabitants.

The Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet ski resort in the nearby Chartreuse massif will remain closed all winter. © Sophie Rodriguez / Reporterre


In the nearby Chartreuse massif, the same questions animate the commune of Plateau-des-petites-roches, located at an altitude of 1,000 meters. What to do when snow is lacking, when faced with a chronic operating deficit ? The small family domain of Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet, which has 10 slopes and 5 ski lifts, will simply not open this winter. In question: the bad weather in December 2021. They heavily damaged the installations and the funicular. This connects the valley to the plateau and its revenue makes it possible to fill the structural deficit of 140,000 euros generated by the station. « It’s heartbreaking, but it is impossible for the municipality to face such an expense, while the funicular is stopped. », explains Alexandre Guerra, municipal councilor in charge of the participatory citizen commission which was set up to reflect on the future of the station. On this question, the town hall has indeed given the floor to the inhabitants via a working group created this autumn and bringing together elected officials, voluntary inhabitants and others drawn by lot. « Beyond the sporting and economic function, the station has a social function, it represents something here », continues Alexandre Guerra. « If we leave the station, the village is dead », confirms Simon Minaud, resident of the plateau, who chose to join the working group to « attempt to save one of the last activities on the board » and not make Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet a « dormitory city ».

« Beyond the sporting and economic function, the station has a social function “says Alexandre Guerra. © Sophie Rodriguez / Reporterre

During the work of the working group, the scenario of permanent closure was ruled out from the outset in favor of the development, in summer, of soft activities centered on families. They would help replenish the coffers for the winter season. An orientation which, the inhabitants hope, should make it possible to revive the station for a few years. Many, on the set, are nevertheless lucid. The end of the station is inevitable, sooner or later. « The inhabitants are aware that given the altitude of the station, it will become more and more complicated and investing in new guns would be disproportionateconcludes Alexandre Guerra. It is impossible to know until when we will be able to operate, but we will not strive to open at all costs. »

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