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Councillors cool to Mt. Sima funding proposal

Whitehorse city councillors are responding warily to Mt. Sima's latest pleas for more money. "When people make an emotional presentation or they show you how much they value the hill, it makes you listen.

Whitehorse city councillors are responding warily to Mt. Sima’s latest pleas for more money.

“When people make an emotional presentation or they show you how much they value the hill, it makes you listen. But you have to weigh that against the actual costs,” said Coun. Mike Gladish.

On Monday night, more than 100 people crammed into city hall to show their support for Mt. Sima. They lauded the facilities the hill provides to train athletes. Without the services at Mt. Sima, youth could turn to drugs and alcohol, they said. And the hill is good for businesses and tourism, they said.

But it’s running out of money. Great Northern Ski Society, the not-for-profit organization that runs the city-owned facility, is asking the city for $400,000.

Without this money, Mt. Sima will close once this season ends, Craig Hougen, president of the society, told council Monday night. This money would cover the projected shortfall for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, according to the organization’s website. The society also wants long-term operational funding from Whitehorse.

Since 2010, Whitehorse has doled out over $3 million for Mt. Sima. Most of that money was reimbursed by the Building Canada Fund, city spokesperson Amos Westropp said in an email this week. Last year, the city gave the society $1.3 million. In 2011, it contributed $1.6 million to help the society replace its chairlift.

The ski hill also received $200,000 in 2010 and $400,000 in 2011 to support its operations.

In an interview Tuesday, Hougen stressed the society doesn’t see city funding as being a permanent solution. And the ski hill has a 52 per cent cost recovery, above the national average of 42 per cent, he said. Season pass sales have increased to a record $90,000 this year, the society says on its website.

During the summer, the board saw the new adventure park wasn’t making as much money as they’d hoped. The summer facility is supposed to help cover some of the winter’s losses.

The society envisions Whitehorse’s contribution shrinking every year and eventually ending altogether, he said.

But if the society can’t provide information about how many members it has, or about its financial situation, it will be hard for council to make a good decision, said Gladish.

“It can’t be an emotional decision, and it has to be based on the facts,” he said. “I think we need more facts.”

And those facts have been hard to come by.

According to information posted online, the society told different levels of government about their cash shortage in the fall. But the society hasn’t been very forthcoming with financial information, said Coun. Betty Irwin.

Irwin has voted against funding for the society in the past. The city hasn’t been able to see the society’s financial statements, she said. Those statements are currently being audited.

Giving long-term funding to one society and not others isn’t fair, said Irwin. The city only has so much money to give, she said.

And downhill skiing will always be costly in Whitehorse, said Gladish. Snow will always need to be made, and cold weather will close the facility for part of each year. The Canada Winter Games in 2007 left Mt. Sima with a legacy it just couldn’t support, he said.

He has an open mind about giving the society long-term funding, he said.

But he questions how valuable the summer operations are, he said. He’s not as open to the request for $400,000, he said.

“I certainly wouldn’t say yes to the status quo. I wouldn’t want them to get money and continue on with it the same way they are operating now. I feel pretty confident saying that now.”

And calling the facility “world-class” or “iconic” is premature, he said.

“It’s not something that you say,” he said. “It’s something that you earn.” The best way for not-for-profits to operate is to start small, he said.

Coun. Dave Stockdale was more blunt with his assessment of the summer park.

It’s “asinine” to believe the summer park will make enough money to cover losses in the winter, he said Thursday. Words like “iconic” should be saved for attractions like the Eiffel Tower or mountains in Switzerland, said Stockdale. And it doesn’t make sense to think tour groups are coming to Whitehorse just to ride a zipline, since many summer tourists are seniors, he said.

The society would have more credibility if its supporters who presented at city council donated some of their own money to keep Mt. Sima open, he said.

He wants to see the ski hill stay open, he said. But there should be a good plan with accountability and checks and balances.

Stockdale said he’s not against long-term core funding, either. At one point a couple years ago, he was willing to see the city give $250,000 annually since it funds other infrastructure, like transit and the Canada Games Centre, he said.

But he’s starting to move away from that position now.

“I’m thoroughly disgusted,” said Stockdale. “This organization has no credibility with me at all.”

Hougen is away on vacation and wasn’t available to answer further questions. The News was not able to speak to a society board member before press time.

City council will meet with city staff on Feb. 25 to discuss the situation. There isn’t a date set for when council will make its decision.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at