Politician takes on the mountain

In opposing a $.16-million city grant to Mt. Sima's new chairlift, Coun. Betty Irwin knew she'd face an uphill slog. "I feel that the money could have been directed to other avenues," said Irwin.

In opposing a $1.6-million city grant to Mt. Sima’s new chairlift, Coun. Betty Irwin knew she’d face an uphill slog.

“I feel that the money could have been directed to other avenues,” said Irwin.

What avenues?

Well, there are plenty of pressing social issues that should take precedence before recreation, she said.

“I think the mandate of the city should be to take care of the citizens, the people who live here, and the first thing you have to look after is shelter and food,” said Irwin.

“I think that would do a lot more people more good than supporting a few downhill skiers who can well afford the sport.”

But in Whitehorse, recreation often trumps need.

“As I’ve been told, the city’s not in the business of social work,” she said. “So giving money for housing, for example, or just donating money to the food bank, that’s not the mandate of the city.”

Irwin was the only politician to vote against funding the chairlift.

Others expressed concerns, she said. But, “When push came to shove, they voted for it.”

Since last week’s chairlift announcement, lots of people have been extending congratulations, said Craig Hougen, president of the Great Northern Ski Society.

“We on the board are really, really excited about what’s going on,” said Hougen. “One thing’s for sure, the community is absolutely, solidly behind us.

“Obviously there will always be some exceptions.”

Irwin’s one. Roger Rondeau is another.

“They say social programming is not in the mandate of the city,” said Rondeau, president of the Utilities Consumers’ Group. “But they’ll subsidize skiing, they’ll subsidize the games centre, they’ll subsidize cross-country skiing.

“To me, as a consumer and a consumer group president, I think that places like Mount Sima and the Canada Games Centre should be privatized and run for profit. If they can’t, then they don’t belong.”

Irwin knows she’s angered skiers by opposing the lift.

But there are those who agree with her.

Hougen is sensitive to how the $1.6-million city grant could rub people the wrong way.

“It’s a lot of money,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to have to spend that kind of money.

“On the other hand, it’s done, and we won’t have to think about it for a good long time into the future.

“It’s a very long-term investment.”

The old chairlift was purchased secondhand, and is 36 years old.

With 21 breakdowns last year alone, there were some very real safety concerns that were starting to call into question the viability of Mount Sima’s operations, said Hougen.

There was a very real possibility the ski hill could shut down.

“It’s a critical piece of sport infrastructure in the Yukon,” he said. “We’d be missing an important piece of what the community does in the winter time.”

With the hill’s future in question, high school students formed the Save Our Sima project.

They approached council a few weeks ago to ask it to help fund a new chairlift.

At the meeting, Nancy Tannert, manager of the Beez Kneez hostel, credited most of her winter bookings to Mount Sima.

But tourism is not the only consideration.

“Our recreational facilities, such as downhill skiing, are really critical when you’re trying to attract people and recruit people to work here,” said Mayor Bev Buckway.

“I’ve had all sorts of business people and people in the medical profession tell us that right across the board.”

But that’s only a consideration for workers in the higher income brackets, said Rondeau.

“It’s not for the people who are coming here and are working in the service industry,” he said. “They can’t afford to go to the ski hill.”

The $1.6 million the city ponied up for the chairlift is roughly half what’s needed for the project.

The rest will come from corporate sponsorship and fundraising efforts.

Given the level of community support, Hougen has every confidence that the ski society will have no trouble raising the money.

Contact Josh Kerr at joshk@yukon-news.com