Fix the chairlift!

Poor Mount Sima. It is painful to watch the staff and snowhounds writhe in agony as the lift breaks down again and again. And it's even more painful to sit on those hard lift-seats while they repair it.

Poor Mount Sima. It is painful to watch the staff and snowhounds writhe in agony as the lift breaks down again and again.

And it’s even more painful to sit on those hard lift-seats while they repair it.

The volunteers who run Mount Sima have done a lot of things right. First of all, the idea of building a ski hill so close to central Whitehorse was brilliant. There aren’t many other cities where you can hang your blazer on the back of your office chair like you’ve gone to a meeting, and then be on the slopes 15 minutes later.

Secondly, the hill is a delight to visit. The runs are good (even if more demanding skiers sigh about Whistler or Chamonix). The staff are friendly. The lineups at the lift and ski rental desk are non-existent. And the new lodge has both french fries and beer, two of Yukonomist’s favourite things about skiing.

And we don’t know which winter god the Sima-ites made their sacrifices to, but the snow came early and deep this year.

But now the gremlins have seized control of the chairlift. Since opening day, it has suffered multiple shut-downs. Faulty electrical cables, zapped circuit boards and other problems keep striking, including last weekend.

The lift problems have hurt Sima. First of all, they cost it significant revenue. Over Christmas, it was closed on what should have been some of its biggest revenue days of the year. You have less than 20 weekends from December to the end of ski season, so it’s a big hit to lose a few of them to lift failures.

Even worse in the long run, I’ve heard a worrying number of people say that they won’t buy season passes again. Or that they didn’t bother going in case the lift failed. Or, worst of all, that they won’t let their children go on the lifts.

But it’s hard to blame Mount Sima. They’ve got a very old lift. As a non-profit society, it’s hard to raise capital to do a major replacement or refurbishment. So they are left making minor fixes. You have to hope it doesn’t degenerate into a vicious cycle, where lack of revenue means they can’t afford major investments, and lack of major investments means lift problems and fewer visitors which then leads to even less revenue, and so on.

The lift engineers will know better, but the Mount Sima lift looks a lot like a 1974 Chevy Nova. A fine car in its day, but old. It runs fine for years, but then the windshield wipers won’t work. A minor fix. Then the starter. No problem, just a few hundred bucks. Then the brakes. Then the transmission.

Soon you find you are spending more on monthly repairs than it would cost you for payments on a new car. And your friends won’t take rides from you since they know they’ll end up helping you push it after it stalls at Second and Main.

Perhaps one more expensive visit from the lift doctors at Superior Tramways and Amptech from the Lower 48 will fix the problem and the lift will run fine for years.

Maybe. But there’s a reason why you never get a ‘74 Nova when you rent a car. Or that ski resorts with access to private capital tend to have newer lifts.

But where to get the money? The typical economist response would be to privatize Sima. Then private investors could sink their own money into it. There are also the revenue streams from equipment and the restaurant. But the Whitehorse market is likely too small for this to be attractive to investors.

Sima could also raise prices, but given the price-sensitivity of they young skiers that might scare off more money than it brought in. Especially when you have a business with high fixed costs but the cost of an additional skier is zero. Here you want pricing that maximizes visitors.

Some resorts operate as true clubs, with membership fees and large capital contributions. You might have to “invest” a few thousand bucks when you join, which the club uses for capital projects. This makes some sense given the affluence of many skiers. But it would also choke off a large part of Sima’s customer base. Probably the best way to attract some of this money is large-scale fundraising, like the hospital does.

Which brings up government funding. So many government agencies have given money to Sima so many times, it is hard to keep track. The city, Lotteries Yukon, various federal agencies and the Yukon government have all chipped in. It adds up to some big sums, but somehow making Sima apply for grant after grant from various programs has left us with the situation where large sums have been spent but the core of the operation – the lift – doesn’t work reliably.

If we are to have a ski hill, it is probably time for the Yukon government to bite the bullet and figure out how to treat Sima the way it treats other big sports. Hockey, figure skating, swimming, indoor soccer and many other sports get multi-million dollar facilities built by the government, and all they have to cover is the operating cost (or often even less). With Sima’s almost 17,000 half and full day users in 2008-09, looking at government funding per hour of citizen activity would likely show alpine sports get considerably less support than more established sports.

Sima is also a big hit with youth. Remember that the government spends lots of money on advertising and programs to encourage them to be more active.

And the Yukon Government’s tourism department also spends liberally on “stay another day” concepts and is pushing both winter and summer tourism. A good ski hill and summer mountain biking and zipline centre fits well into that. The government also generously supports the game farm, and one suspects that a functioning Mount Sima would be equally or even more appealing from a tourism and economic development point of view.

Overall there is a strong case to be made for significant Yukon government investment in Sima’s lift. The ski season may be half over, but with an election this year it is just the start of lobbying season.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.

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