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The $100 million question: Is Whitehorse ready for the Games?

Will we be ready?If one thing haunts Piers McDonald the question of readiness for the 2007 Canada Winter Games is it.

Will we be ready?

If one thing haunts Piers McDonald the question of readiness for the 2007 Canada Winter Games is it.

The former silver miner and Yukon premier is now president of the Canada Games Host Society.

He displays gritty conviction that Whitehorse will be prepared for the Games, set to descend upon the city — ready or not — in 23 weeks.

But McDonald’s exterior confidence aside, the massive commitments of money and manpower required to be “ready” are leading to anxiety in Yukoners as February approaches.

Whitehorse is expected to make up to $100 million in spin-off profits from the Games.

Every failure to live up to the task will erode the bottom line.

Hosting the Games properly is a numbers game of raising enough money and recruiting enough people.

And, currently, we appear to be winning in some areas, but, in others, we’re unsure of our score.

“We’re pretty confident we’ll meet our targets,” says McDonald in his downtown office.

It may sound like money talk, but McDonald is referring to people.

Volunteers are the biggest variable in the success of the Games.

There are currently about 1,700 volunteers signed up, and 600 of ‘em are already helping plan the event.

February’s volunteer population target is 5,000, says McDonald.

Do the math and you realize that’s almost one person from every Whitehorse household — a huge task from a small community.

But McDonald isn’t worried.

“Whitehorse successfully hosted the Arctic Winter Games before, and we’re looking for the same number of volunteers, so there’s not a huge difference there,” he says.

The main difference between the two events is the level of organization required for the Canada Winter Games, he says.

Each of the 22 sporting events in the Games “is the equivalent of a national-class competition,” says McDonald.

“The Arctic Winter Games is a community event. If something happens we rolled with the punches.

“With the Canada Winter Games, the demand for organization and professionalism is much higher.”

Volunteers will be trained to ensure they are up to the task.

Unfortunately, many Whitehorse residents are taking family vacations during the Games to capitalize on money offered for their houses and apartments and an extended spring break for their children.

Again, McDonald doesn’t bat an eye.

“As much as there are people who decide this is a great opportunity to leave Whitehorse and go on a long vacation, the vast majority of people I’ve met wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he says.

“I think the vast majority will stay and participate.”

Volunteers will also arrive from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, he adds.

“In the end, we may not need as many volunteers.”

Successfully mobilizing thousands of volunteers at multiple venues for a two-week-long event requires a lot of time.

So does volunteering itself: as well as training for certain posts, any volunteer who will work near Games athletes will require a criminal background check.

Though the Mounties have committed to “fast track” background checks through the system, procrastination on the part of those who eventually intend to volunteer is McDonald’s biggest enemy.

“We can’t be expecting to do 3,000 of these in a few weeks,” he says. “That’s just not realistic.”

If you intend to volunteer, sign up soon, he says.

On September 23rd, the host society will hold a volunteer recruitment fair to boost its roster well before the Games open.

Volunteers are expected to log 12 hours during the Games.

And, surprisingly, those with a criminal past aren’t being excluded.

“If you do have a criminal record it does not mean you can’t volunteer,” McDonald says, though he adds they won’t be allowed near the athletes.

“There’s room enough for everybody.”

On Monday, Whitehorse councillors confronted McDonald about their fear the volunteer roster is a tad thin.

Many who signed up to volunteer for the Games a long time ago are now confused, said councillor Bev Buckway.

“Nobody has gotten back to them,” Buckway said.

“We are going to try to reconnect with people between now and the Games,” McDonald replied.

Another numbers game already in progress is accommodation.

The host society is obliged to find beds for hundreds of Canada Games council representatives, media, VIPs, politicians and other officials who will be in Whitehorse between February 23rd and March 10th.

A list of guests, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Governor General Michaelle Jean — both with a large entourage of handlers and security — has been compiled.

And it just keeps growing.

“For the most part, we’re adding names to the list, not taking them off,” McDonald says.

“It works out to all available rooms that meet a basic standard — all of them have been secured.”

But though the numbers are tight, “we’ll have enough (hotel rooms) for what we need,” he says.

Coaches and athletes will be staying at the athletes’ village, which the host society takes possession of in early November.

But what about tourists and their fat wallets?

“We’re likely going to be depending more on home-stays than a larger community would,” McDonald says.

To accommodate visitors, the host society has created NorthStay, a home-stay program modeled on programs from the 2003 Canada Games in Bathurst, New Brunswick.

There are three options in the program: room rentals, home rentals and billets.

Room rental rates are $50 per night.

A five- or six-bedroom house is worth up to $2,500 per week; a two- to three-bedroom apartment up to $1,400 a week.

“It’s essentially a dating service between people who want space and people who have space,” McDonald says of NorthStay.

About 100 homes are registered with a similar number of requests for space.

“We expect that to be just the beginning,” he says.

Those who do apply for the program will have their houses inspected and evaluated.

But tourists expecting hotel rooms may be put off at the prospect of staying in a stranger’s home for two weeks.

The host society can only accept and work around those realities, says McDonald.

“There is the potential for that, so we’re trying to make the home-stays as easy an experience as possible,” he says.

“We can only do what we can do. It would be unrealistic for people to build new hotel space for a two-week event.

“The challenge is that we don’t really know how many tourists will be coming.

“We need to prepare as elastic a response as possible — there may be 2,000 visitors, there may be 4,000.”

What is already a clear success are the Games’ financial limbs.

More than 70 Yukon businesses have donated $6.5 million, and only another million or so is needed to meet targets, says McDonald.

Ottawa has increased its Games funding, and is injecting up to $350,000 every month by paying invoices.

The feds will ultimately give $3.5 million to the Games, and both the NWT and Nunavut are each donating $200,000.

In a financial report given to Whitehorse city council last week, McDonald noted that all partner contributions have been settled and all outstanding issues with the Canada Games council have been resolved.

“The big-picture items are pretty much nailed,” he told council.

In addition to money flowing into bank accounts, the Games are creating a legacy of infrastructure.

The $42 million Canada Games Centre is the largest chunk of that legacy, but not the only piece.

Upgrades and improvements at Mt. Sima, worth $1.8 million, have been made for competitions to be held there.

Mt. McIntyre has received trail and stadium development and trail-grooming equipment.

The overall operating budget is about $21 million, with capital expenditures, not including the $30 million athletes’ village, coming in at about $6 million.

Add it all up and the prospect is profits, McDonald says.

“Judging from previous Games, we’ve seen economic impact in the $70 to $100 million range,” he says confidently.

That’s if we’re ready, of course.