City shoots down Mount Sima funding

UPDATE: Great Northern Ski Society announced after our deadline Wednesday afternoon that the board is dissolving due to Mt. Sima's financial problems. More to come. The City of Whitehorse will not be rescuing Mount Sima from its avalanche of debt.

UPDATE: Great Northern Ski Society announced after our deadline Wednesday afternoon that the board is dissolving due to Mt. Sima’s financial problems. More to come.

The City of Whitehorse will not be rescuing Mount Sima from its avalanche of debt.

On Monday night, city council voted unanimously to reject the Great Northern Ski Society’s most recent bailout request for over $622,000 to keep the hill operating. Without this cash infusion, the society may have to dissolve.

The city wants Mount Sima to succeed, said Mayor Dan Curtis. It just doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

An ad published in Friday’s paper, paid for by Friends of Mount Sima, urged citizens to call or email the mayor and city councillors to show their support. If citizens didn’t, the ad warned, council could shut down the hill. A similar ad was also posted to Mount Sima’s Facebook page.

The campaign was extremely offensive, Curtis said.

“I go there. My kids go there. I love the place. It’s not like we’re trying to find a way to close Mount Sima or not. We’re trying hard to work with the community. That’s what we want to see.”

The non-profit’s request came after the society released a new business plan earlier this month. Its financial struggles became public when it requested $800,000 from the city earlier this year. The city refused.

Last month, there were two closed meetings with the society, government and sports representatives to discuss saving the hill. And for the city, doling out more cash isn’t viable. Last week, council debated costs of shutting the facility down completely or temporarily if the society dissolved. If that happened, the chairlift and buildings would go back to the city. But the city would also have to pay for legal and administrative costs, including the cost of breaking the society’s 10-year lease with WildPlay, the company that runs the hill’s summer adventure park. The park opened late last year and didn’t make as much money as expected. The company is running it directly this year, but not all attractions are open.

And it continues to frustrate councillors.

“(The plan) didn’t see any options for downsizing,” Coun. Mike Gladish said before Monday night’s vote, explaining his reason for rejecting the society’s business plan.

The city’s rejection was not what the society was expecting, spokesperson Patti Balsillie said Tuesday morning. But she didn’t offer any more explanation. The board will meet today to discuss what its different options are, she said.

No representatives from the Great Northern Ski Society appeared before council on Monday night. But the society was put in the hot seat regardless.

Coun. Betty Irwin was outspoken in her criticism of the board.

The city has given the society over $3 million in the last couple years to pay for the new ski lift. Most of that money came from the Canada Building Fund. Irwin voted against the funding each time.

“What is definitely debatable is the effectiveness and performance of the current Great Northern Ski Society board of directors,” she told council. “The actions and the decisions of the board have resulted in the present financial fiasco, and ultimately it is up to the board to dig themselves out. It is not up to the city.”

The city has rejected the plan, but it has secured the chairlift.

There’s over $190,000, including interest, owing on that piece of equipment. The bill is due June 30. Council voted unanimously to dip into city reserves to pay the outstanding costs – but only if the Great Northern Ski Society agrees to an arrangement that would allow the city to buy the lift from them. If the city purchases the lift, it can then lease it back to the society, acting city manager Brian Crist said Tuesday morning. There is about $700,000 in the city’s reserves. Council chose to use reserve money to avoid raising taxes, said Crist.

The Yukon government has offered to contribute $180,000 to the chairlift, as long as Mount Sima is open this winter. That offer still stands, government spokesperson Matthew Grant said Tuesday morning. This means the territory could reimburse the city. Details of the arrangement are being worked out, said Grant.

Securing the chairlift shows the city supports the hill, Coun. John Streicker said on Monday, calling the decision a “wise investment.”

Streicker echoed a common sentiment among councillors: that community members are willing to help the hill. “The plan that came to us missed the community for me,” he told his fellow councillors. “And we start off thinking, ‘This has to be a community hill.’ I’m looking to where the community solutions are.”

And council saw some of that Monday night, he said.

Trevor Mead-Robins doesn’t ski very well, he told council. But as a business owner, he’s willing to pay more for the hill to stay open. He uses it for paragliding. There’s nowhere in the territory like Mount Sima for the sport, he said. The ability to drive to the hill and glide over his lunch break is “unique.” There are fewer than 20 insured paragliding members in the Yukon, he said. They want to make improvements at Mount Sima, but they can only do that if the hill will be open.

Local resident Cristina Pekarik came to the city with a business plan she devised for the hill. The government planner called the summits a “lost moment” because no concrete solutions came from them, she said. It would have been good to see more numbers from the society, she said.

With her model, Whitehorse would fund some operations and maintenance money for the hill’s winter operations, said Pekarik. In her three-year plan, the city’s contributions would decrease each year. She also proposed raising $100,000 from businesses and community members. She’s already had families and businesses say they’ll make pledges to keep the hill running, she said.

Athletes need the facilities for training, said Pekarik. Her son was on Yukon’s alpine team when it won bronze a few years ago. Some of the athletes are among the best in the country, and they’re worried about what will happen if the hill closes.

“If the hill goes, if it goes dormant for a year or two while the adults take their merry time, those kids’ opportunities are gone,” she said Tuesday.

But the adults aren’t done discussing the hill yet.

Many city services, including transit, the pool and curling rink were begun by volunteers, Coun. Dave Stockdale said Monday night. But when volunteers got too tired, the city took over operations, he said.

He can picture that happening here, too.

“I have actually no doubt in my own mind that this ski hill will open, it will function, we will subsidize it, and it will be a fair subsidy based on what we provide for other people,” Stockdale told council.

He would like there to be a public meeting to discuss what it would cost to keep the hill open, he said.

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