Re Too Big To Fail? The News, February 17:
We live in a time when criticism is unfashionable, and those who dare to speak their mind are often scorned. Yet, how much kinder would it have been if the proponents of Great River Journey had been subjected to the critical eye of a commercial banker, rather than relying largely on public and private funding to promote a dream?
When you go to a bank, there are no emotional involvements. It’s all facts. And if the banker tells you “no deal,” perhaps you should listen, and re-evaluate what you’re doing.
There appears to be little regular financing in this venture. There could be a reason for that.
If there’s a villain in this piece, it might be the people in both the federal and territorial government agencies that provided grants and loans for a project that needed critical scrutiny. It’s hard to fault the proponents for trying to fulfill their ambitions, but even there, optimism was, well, unusually optimistic.
I had the opportunity to skim a feasibility study for Great River Journey and my immediate thought was, “I’ll have some of what they’re having!” Assumptions breed conclusions, but not results.
In the tourism industry, people were privately commenting that they thought Great River Journey was doomed to failure, but hoped that it would succeed. Why? Well, Great River Journey was sucking up so much government support, it was felt that failure would be the death knell of tourism funding for more viable ventures.
The merits of this project, and the manner in which it was planned, could be discussed at length. Best to leave that for a post mortem.
The facts are that Great River Journey failed to attract an audience from the start. That start was about three years ago, with introductory test trips at discount rates, so it could be said that the venture was late out of the gate, never a good sign. Advertising this spring is not going to save it.
The target market should have been less affected by the economic downturn than regular tourists. So much for that excuse. That’s if this project accurately targeted a market, which has proven to be questionable.
As for tragic consequences and the failure to recover investment if the plug is pulled, it’s hard to see what consequences would exist. Great River Journey has never been successful, so no one is depending on it. And with $12 millionspent, it’s hard to understand how there is any hope of payback and profit within a reasonable period.
Even if existing debt was forgiven, a reasonable assumption is that Great River Journey would continue to flounder and accumulate new debt. Who benefits from this?
The suggestion was made that Great River Journey is an “important icon project.” While the principle of attracting a wealthier, soft-adventure clientele is sound, what part of an ersatz wilderness, funhouse lodging, glass-topped boat experience spells iconic Yukon? And should a Yukon icon be a financial loser?
Asquith reportedly stated, “It’s not the time to blink.” Certainly not, and I hope governments don’t. It’s time to let Great River Journey survive on its own, if it can.
Are there lessons to be learned from this? Absolutely. Is there a role for wise government investment? You bet. Will governments learn to differentiate between projects based on merit and not political attractiveness? Doubtful. Will private parties continue to advance individual dreams? Inevitably. Do we have to support them? Not necessarily at public expense, and not without critical review.
Tourism is a big-ticket industry, it’s changing, and the Yukon could be getting more benefit from it. When even a venerable institution like Parks Canada is considering increasing access to truly iconic places, that’s a serious harbinger of change. As with a lot of life, you can ride the change or it can ride you.
Riding the change will take some foresight and innovation that is currently lacking.