Mount Sima could still be saved.
The Great Northern Ski Society is hosting a public meeting on July 17 at the hill’s ski chalet. The aim is to allow interested people to discuss solutions to the hill’s problems, says Lee Vincent, the society’s secretary. The board is not planning to reopen the hill this summer, she said.
Mount Sima closed last week after the society decided to begin dissolving. The society couldn’t pay its debts. It has $170,000 in unsecured debt to local creditors. It also owes WildPlay, the franchise that operates the hill’s summer adventure park, between $70,000 and $90,000. And there’s nearly $200,000 owing on the chairlift.
The city rejected the board’s most recent request for over $600,000 to keep the facility running this summer and into next winter. But mayor and council decided to use city reserves to pay the remaining debts on the chairlift.
In the meantime, the board is staying focused on paying off its debts to local creditors and making sure the hill can open this winter if someone decides to run it, said Vincent. The deadline for seeing if the hill can open for the winter is the beginning of September, she said. The board is making a list of items it can sell, like the T-bar and the generator, to pay off the $170,000 debt. There should be some ads posted online this week, said Vincent.
Many people have ideas about how to keep the hill open, but the board isn’t able to do them, she said. “We need (the public) to step up to the plate and do something,” she said.
Rolf Hougen, a prominent Whitehorse businessman and the father of ski society president Craig Hougen, came forward with some ideas of his own last week.
He’s proposing the city raise taxes by one per cent to help fund the ski hill. The city owns the hill, and it should fund it just like it does every other recreational facility, the elder Hougen said last week.
“That has nothing to do with my involvement,” he said when asked if his family’s connection to the hill is fueling his concern. “My involvement is only because of the great facility we have and the city is unwilling to give it the financial support that it gives to all other organizations,” said Hougen.
That support could come from taxes.
A one per cent tax increase would amount to about $300,000. It wouldn’t hit property owners too hard, said Hougen.
He estimates taxes for his large downtown property would only go up by $44 a year. The average citizen’s bill would only increase by about half of that, he said.
And to keep a world-class, year-round facility open, that’s a bargain, he said.
The city has doled out more than $3 million for the hill in the last couple years, much of it for the new chairlift. Most of it came from federal funds funneled through the city. Only $30,000 in the last couple years actually came directly from Whitehorse property taxes.
“The taxpayers have contributed zilch to Mount Sima,” said Hougen.
Most people won’t like that idea, he said. Taxes are already going up by nearly four per cent this year. Another four per cent hike is proposed for next year, and 2015 could see another three per cent rise.
Hougen has come up with a second option, one that he prefers, he said. The city should cut between five and 10 of its over 300 staff positions and use that money to pay for Sima. This money could also benefit organizations like the MacBride Museum of Yukon History or the Whitehorse Curling Club, said Hougen.
Mayor Dan Curtis called both ideas “interesting,” but maintained that neither are realistic.
The only way the city would have ever been able to come up with funds for the hill would be through tax increases or service cuts, he said. It “wasn’t in the cards,” said Curtis.
“From really early on, we heard loud and clear that the general populous wasn’t interested in seeing an incremental tax increase to be able to facilitate Sima or any other facility, recreational facility or otherwise,” he said.
Hougen is a well-respected businessman who’s done a good job of representing his interests, said Curtis. But the city works for all citizens, he said.
“I feel like a broken record,” he said. If the city had an extra $600,000 or $800,000, it wouldn’t be raising taxes, said Curtis.
“We have all the desire in the world to have (Mount Sima) continue, but we just don’t have the fiscal ability.”
The city showed leadership by buying the chairlift, said Curtis. User groups and businesses need to organize to raise money for the hill, and simply asking the city for more money isn’t a viable business plan, said Curtis. The board runs the hill, and the city can’t tell it what to do, he said.
Some of the board’s decisions can be questioned, said Hougen. It’s too early to say if the WildPlay park was a good idea, but it hasn’t even been open for a year. If it doesn’t work, it should be closed, he said.
Not everyone uses Mount Sima, but not everyone uses the curling club either, he said. And the city still gives it some money.
“The quality of life in a community is not based only on roads and sewer services and snow removal, it’s also based on lifestyle. Whitehorse has an outstanding lifestyle,” said Hougen, noting the numerous recreation and cultural facilities the city funds.
Hougen said he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is. If he can find five or six other businesses that are willing, he’ll go to the bank and pay back the debt owing to local creditors, he said.
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