Time for new leadership at Sima

It's probably for the best that the Great Northern Ski Society hit the self-destruct button when it did this week. It had become clear that the non-profit’s board of directors was incapable of fixing the problems that Mount Sima faces.

It’s probably for the best that the Great Northern Ski Society hit the self-destruct button when it did this week. It had become clear that the non-profit’s board of directors was incapable of fixing the problems that Mount Sima faces, or even acknowledging the role they played in creating the current mess.

But let’s remember the positive: Whitehorse owns a new quad ski-lift – a $3-million piece of infrastructure that was largely paid for by Ottawa. The fact that some people see this asset’s existence as something to moan about only underlines how lucky Whitehorse residents have it.

Consider that Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, doesn’t even have a community swimming pool, after its small, aging facility sprung a big, irreparable leak in October. A replacement isn’t expected to be built until 2016. And that remote Arctic community isn’t spoiled for choice when it comes to recreational facilities in the same way that Whitehorse is. No extensive cross-country ski trails like what’s found at Mount McIntyre. Nothing resembling the Canada Games Centre. And, needless to say, no quad lift.

So while it’s a shame that Mount Sima’s lift will be out of commission until a new group can be formed to operate the facility, let’s keep things in perspective. Even without Sima, Whitehorse is pretty much the envy of any similarly-sized jurisdiction when it comes to sporting facilities.

Yes, these facilities cost money to run. But that’s part of the price of making Whitehorse such an attractive place to live, which in turn helps recruit new families to live here, which in turn increases the number of households paying property taxes. If the challenges of controlling the costs of the city’s excellent recreational facilities is your biggest gripe, consider yourself lucky.

With all that said, the obstacles to re-opening Sima are considerable. As the society winds down, the city intends to take possession of the chairlift and chalet, while the society plans to sell off anything that isn’t nailed down in order to try to pay the $170,000 it owes local companies. That means that whatever new organization eventually forms to run the ski hill in the future will probably need to acquire snow grooming machinery and other equipment that the ski society is now preparing to put on the auction block.

Why a new non-profit? Because it seems unlikely that a private operator would want to buy Sima, given the outfit’s performance as a money-loser. And costs would only continue to grow if the city directly operated the hill, due to the municipality’s unionized workforce.

Whatever new group emerges will need to heed some lessons from their predecessors’ failures. Here’s a good place to start: learn to admit when you made a mistake. The inability of the current board of directors to do this goes a long way to explain why so many people are fed up with them.

Sima’s expanded year-round operations were supposed to make the hill self-sustaining. Instead, the ski society dug themselves deep into debt.

We don’t know precisely what went wrong. In their characteristic fashion, the board asserts that it was all someone else’s fault: governments were late in providing funding, which held up construction, which delayed the opening of summer operations.

But maybe the ski society should have expected to run up deficits during the first few years of year-round operation, and should have planned accordingly. After all, such shortfalls were predicted in the society’s strategic plan, prepared in 2009. It seems that Sima later baked up some new, more optimistic plans, which later proved to be unrealistic.

What remained of the ski society’s credibility evaporated the moment that they announced in March that regular, large transfusions of cash from the city would need to be the new normal. This had never been part of the plan, yet board members had the chutzpah to act as if it were offering city councillors some kind of great bargain.

The fact that the amount of money sought by the society seemed to double, to $800,000, within the course of a week did not help matters. Board members explained the confusion stemmed from how their fiscal year didn’t match what was used by the city, but they should have known they needed to explain things on council’s own terms.

It’s entirely possible that Sima will need regular city funding of some sort. But the proper time to make that pitch would be during the city’s winter budget deliberations, and any proposal should have been buttressed with a solid business case, which was conspicuously lacking when the board presented to council. Instead, board members depended on emotional appeals, which eventually wore thin.

As councillors wait for the mess to be mopped up, they should consider how the city could provide greater oversight of whatever new group forms. After all, if the next organization runs into financial trouble, we know who they’ll turn to to pay. 

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