Visitors enjoy a meal at the Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry in this 2019 file photo. The resort recently won a grant to buy vans to transport its employees living in the area to work. Credit: Courtesy of Sunday River Ski Resort

Last winter a lack of drivers shut down the local shuttle bus service that transported workers and skiers to the Sunday River Ski Resort from the towns of Bethel and Newry.

Now the resort hopes to solve the issue with a $387,200 state grant that will help it buy four all-wheel drive vans to transport workers for free from nearby towns to the ski resort. A fifth van, which will be electric, will transport Sunday River workers residing in employer-provided housing.

The vans also will offer transportation to workers at other area businesses in partnership with the Bethel Chamber of Commerce. They will run between the resort and the towns of Bethel and Rumford. Some of the vans may be devoted to picking up staff from specific resort departments such as housekeeping.

Transportation is a challenge in many rural areas and holds people back from taking jobs or getting to work, said Jessie Perkins, executive director of the chamber. She said it is one reason why the resort hasn’t been able to hire all the workers it would like, a fate suffered by businesses in many other rural areas of the state.

The idled Mountain Explorer, which connected the two towns with the resort, has a message on its website saying it hopes to run again this winter. But the resort wants to get its van service going as soon as possible this season. It already has four vans, each of which holds 12 passengers. It has them under a rent-to-own agreement as part of the pilot program and if all goes well, plans to buy them in May 2023. The drive between Bethel and the resort takes about 15 minutes.

“As a business that employs numerous people in a rural area, reliable transportation is crucial to our team members,” said Brian Heon, general manager of the resort, which is the largest employer in the area, with about 1,000 workers.

Without the Mountain Explorer last year, some employees had to carpool, and some weren’t able to get to work, Brian Lenberg, executive assistant at the resort, said.

The grant the resort won Wednesday from the Maine Department of Transportation is through the Workforce Transportation Pilot Program. Sunday River was the first to get the grant, with about $4.6 million left in the program to be awarded. The department said it is working with several other applicants on proposals.

“The funding will provide critical connections for Sunday River,” said Bruce Van Note, commissioner of the department.

A skier takes to the slopes at Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, western Maine, in this 2020 file photo. Credit: Courtesy of Sunday River Ski Resort

The grant program, an initiative of Gov. Janet Mills’ Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan, supports local and regional pilot programs that connect workers and employers through ridesharing, vanpools and other transit options.

Perkins said the Sunday River vans are more flexible in their routes than the Mountain Explorer, which was on a fixed schedule. They are also smaller, so they don’t need the same driver’s license certification, she said.

The transportation could help the resort and other businesses attract workers.

“This is an example of an employer taking charge of a situation,” Perkins said. “They need a lot of employees, and if the difference between getting them or not is transportation, then they need to take charge of that situation. And that’s what they’re doing.”