Cape Breton Coal Miners Museum faces multiple project setbacks

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It's been a bumpy ride for the Cape Breton Miners Museum to bring its underground mine simulator to fruition. After overcoming financial shortfalls and dealing with COVID-19 setbacks, the project has not gone as planned – but museum staff remain hopeful.

The latest attraction promises to give visitors an underground trip via a virtual mine simulator – taking them back to the days when coal was essential to the island's economy. However, COVID-19 travel restrictions are threatening the success of the nearly-complete project.

"We're two and a half weeks away from completion, but lord knows how long it's going to take for those two weeks to happen," says Cape Breton's Miners Museum executive director, Mary Pat Mombourquette. "I got teams in Alberta and New Brunswick that need to get here to build. So, until the borders are open, we are stuck in this mode."

Perhaps COVID-19's hindrance of the museum's new addition would be bearable – if adversity hadn't been plaguing the project from the beginning.

"It's like it's jinxed; if there's something that can possibly go wrong, it's happened here," says Mombourquette. "You cannot imagine the things that went wrong with this project."

The museum is famous for its guided mine tours, but what is exciting about the simulator is that it will allow visitors to have the same experience – without having to go underground. Staff say it's the perfect solution for apprehensive museumgoers.

"Now they're going to get to see it instead of sitting out in the car and letting someone else tell them about it," says Cape Breton Miners Museum mine guide, Wish Donovan.

Nobody is more disappointed about the simulator's delay than Donovan, who worked in the coal mines at the height of their production. Spending his spare time as a mine guide these days, he hopes more people will be exposed to the rich history of Cape Breton's mines.

"This was the industrial heart of Cape Breton at one time – the industrial heart of Canada," says Donovan. "Cape Breton coal has a great history. It was the biggest thing in Canada during the Second World War; it was prepared for the government."

Similar to many tourist operators in the Maritimes, Cape Breton Miners Museum continues to wait on government approval to reopen. Mombourquette says she isn't expecting inter-provincial travel to be allowed anytime soon, so having the simulator in operation as soon as possible is crucial from a financial perspective.

"I'm hoping it will attract locals," says Mombourquette. "I think it's something new to see here. I think it's going to attract people with mobility issues who can't go underground; because that is the premier experience of going underground with a retired miner."

As of Sunday, the museum's doors remain closed, and the simulator is on hold as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the summer tourism season. Museum staff say they are desperate to return to business; because without visitors, they're without revenue.

(With files from CTV Atlantic's Kyle Moore)