Sima’s struggles common: ski expert

Mt. Sima is not unique. That's the message from Kevin Grogan, general manager of Vista Ridge All Seasons Park near Fort McMurray, Alta.

Mt. Sima is not unique.

That’s the message from Kevin Grogan, general manager of Vista Ridge All Seasons Park near Fort McMurray, Alta.

Grogan was in Whitehorse this week for the first of two meetings held to discuss ways to help keep the Whitehorse’s ski hill operating.

In March, representatives of the Great Northern Ski Society, the not-for-profit group that runs the city-owned hill, asked city council to re-consider how Mt. Sima is funded. The society wanted $400,000 in immediate, emergency funding. It also wanted the city to consider annual funding that would decrease over time. The society suggested the annual funding start at $400,000. It would also begin this calendar year.

But council refused to cough up the cash.

“I’m really hopeful a solution will be found,” Mayor Dan Curtis said on March 25. “But it will be a community solution. Quite frankly, I don’t have a cheque for $800,000 in my back pocket.”

Representatives from the ski society, the city, territorial government, Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, businesses and sports organizations are discussing options for supporting Mt. Sima. They met on Thursday and will meet again on May 23.

Most ski hills don’t make money, said Grogan, the chair of the Alberta-Saskatchewan-Manitoba zone of the Canada West Ski Areas Association.

“I don’t think there’s any magic potion that solves these issues,” he said.

He can’t say what Whitehorse should do, but most hills can’t run without some annual funding, he said. Constantly worrying about funding can tire board members. And ski hills provide important recreational activities.

“To me, the ski hill in a community is similar to the rink except it doesn’t have a cover over it. It’s part of the fibre of our communities,” he said.

But not always part of the budget.

Vista Ridge does not receive annual funding from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo for its operations, although the municipality has helped fund past construction projects. A non-profit group runs the ski hill’s operations, while the city owns the facility and equipment.

Vista Ridge also turns a profit, he said.

More than 40 per cent of small ski hills in Western Canada are not profitable, he said. And many of those facilities serve larger populations than Whitehorse.

“We’re past that break-even point,” said Grogan, explaining why Vista Ridge doesn’t receive municipal funding.

But operations have been bumpy at times. In the mid-1980s, Spruce Valley Ski Hill opened, run by a not-for-profit organization. But equipment was old and unreliable. By the end of the decade, operations were in trouble. In 1992, the board agreed to have the City of Fort McMurray take over operations.

That was not successful. Different groups formed to save the hill, but it closed in 1994. Around this time, some community members decided to save it. The Vista Ridge Recreation Association formed in 1995. Grogan was hired shortly after.

Then, Vista Ridge was similar to Mt. Sima in terms to the population it served. But now, Fort McMurray has nearly three times more people than Whitehorse does.

“We’re just fortunate because the population grew, and it’s a young population. We’re the ‘flavour of the month,’” said Grogan. Companies will often mention the ski hill when recruiting potential employees, he said.

And Vista Ridge has worked to create “fans” out of people who don’t ski or snowboard, said Grogan. Its tubing park, opened in 1999, was Alberta’s first, he said. Just as many people come to tube as they do to ski and snowboard, he said.

People who are new to the country really enjoy it, he said. “As Canadians, everyone goes and slides somewhere.”

The park’s mandate is to operate all year. It plans to open a WildPlay park, similar to the one at Mt. Sima, next year. Construction will begin this summer.

The main thing Mt. Sima needs to do is listen to the people, he said.

“We’re in the business of creating smiles,” said Grogan. “And if people leave happy, well, they’ll come back and do it again.”

Contact Meagan Gillmore at