Mount Sima has crashed.
The Great Northern Ski Society, the not-for-profit that runs the city-owned hill, has decided to fold. The hill will close on July 2, leaving six to eight summer students working at the WildPlay adventure park without jobs.
The board made the decision Wednesday afternoon, after Whitehorse City Council unanimously rejected the society’s most recent request for over $620,000 to keep doors open over the summer and for next season.
Council’s decision left the society with only one option, said board spokesperson Patti Balsillie.
“Our tank has run out,” she said Wednesday afternoon.
Craig Hougen, president of the board, was fishing in Alaska at the time of the meeting, but he is aware of the decision and supports it, said secretary Lee Vincent.
The society can’t fully dissolve until all debts are paid. It has $170,000 in unsecured debts to local creditors, said Vincent. This includes payments to local businesses and water and electricity bills. It also owes $192,221 to Doppelmayr for the new chairlift and between $70,000 and $90,000 to WildPlay. WildPlay operates the adventure park that opened last summer. It’s been running the park directly this season – but not all attractions have been open.
The board says the city let it burn.
“The Great Northern Ski Society has had our hands tied by the City of Whitehorse,” said Balsillie on Wednesday.
But the city isn’t to blame, Mayor Dan Curtis said Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re not shutting anyone down. We’re not the society,” he said. “We’re just the City of Whitehorse trying the best we can for our citizens.”
He doesn’t understand why the society claims Monday’s decision was unexpected.
“To suggest that you’re surprised, I’m surprised that you’re surprised,” said Curtis.
“I’ve said for months now that I will not support a business plan that has one partner being the City of Whitehorse,” said Curtis. “The writing was on the wall. It was sandblasted on the wall,” he said. “We simply do not have the cash.”
On Monday night, council voted unanimously to use some of the city’s reserves to pay off the remaining debt on the chairlift. The city plans to buy the equipment, then lease it back to whatever group may eventually run the hill.
The Yukon government has offered to pay $180,000 towards the chairlift if the hill opens this winter. This money could be reimbursed to the city.
But the board isn’t accepting that offer – yet. It plans to sell remaining assets, like the snow-grooming equipment and kitchen supplies, to pay back the $170,000 debt. If it can do that, it will accept the city’s offer. The society’s latest financial statements peg the value of equipment, furniture and machines at over $580,000.
The board has been trying to cut costs, said Vincent. It’s laid off staff – there’s only a facilities manager and two maintenance staff left working at the hill. Their combined salary is $150,000, and the city is footing the bill for some of that.
Mount Sima needs to be treated just like the city’s other recreational facilities, said Vincent.
“If the roof blew off the Canada Games Centre, it would be replaced by the city. There wouldn’t be any discussion about it, it would just be replaced,” she said.
But that comparison isn’t accurate, said Robert Fendrick, the city’s director of corporate services.
“In no way, shape or form is it a city facility in the sense of the Canada Games Centre. It’s always been operated to the community’s benefit as a third-party on-site operation.”
Fendrick, along with Linda Rapp, the city’s director of community and recreation services, represents the city on the ski society’s board. Combined, they have one vote.
He echoed Curtis’s sentiment, saying that the community will have to come up with a solution.
The society’s financial woes became apparent before last fall’s election, said Fendrick. Councillors were briefed on the situation in November, but there was a lot to learn with a new council, he said. By January, the financial woes were more obvious, said Fendrick. Council met with the board as part of this year’s budget consultations. The board made a request before council in March. Council rejected it. And the city wanted to see more community involvement in the most recent plan, he said.
Much of the society’s financial woes have been attributed to the adventure park installed last summer. Bad weather and construction delays meant it opened late, and that accounts for some of the losses, said Fendrick.
But the business model just isn’t sustainable, he said.
WildPlay has been aware of the situation, said company CEO and co-founder Tom Benson. The company offered to take over summer operations, and representatives were at the first stakeholder meeting last month.
“We’re really bummed about it,” said Benson. This is the first time something like this has happened at one of the company’s parks, and they’re still not sure how much the society owes them.
The company will work with the society throughout the rest of this process, said Benson. He compared finding a solution at this point to pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Summer season passes to WildPlay will be fully reimbursed, the society announced today. And people can use the park at half-price on July 2.
In the meantime, local businesses are left in the lurch.
Genevieve Beaudin, manager of Boardstiff, has already ordered snowboards and equipment. But she’s had to tell her suppliers to not send the merchandise right away, and warned them she may have to cancel orders.
She could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said.
The city should run the hill, and consider selling land around it for development, she said. Running the hill is hard and takes a lot of work, she said.
“The Yukon’s not big enough to have Sima make money,” said Beaudin.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at