Yukon government hid $750K deal with golf course from public view

The Yukon government never wanted Yukoners to find out that it bailed out Mountain View Golf Club to the tune of $750,000 in 2011.

The Yukon government never wanted Yukoners to find out that it bailed out Mountain View Golf Club to the tune of $750,000 in 2011.

The government of the day went to great lengths to frame the deal as payment for a transfer of lands that were under lease to the golf course, rather than a hand-out to the non-profit society.

However, documents obtained through an access to information request show that the primary motivation was to help out the golf course pay off its debt.

The Yukon government paid the golf course $750,000 for lands the government already owned, for which the golf course had paid no more than $1,750 total in rent over 13 or 14 years, wasn’t using and had no immediate intention or means to develop.

The NDP Opposition asked the government about the deal in the legislature this week, and shared relevant documents with the media.

“Nobody questions the need for the government to support recreational organizations,” NDP Leader Liz Hanson said on Wednesday. “What is not OK is to do it behind closed doors and under false pretences.”

 

A hidden hand-out

Here’s what happened.

In 1997, Mountain View leased a 51-hectare piece of land from the Yukon government, with the idea that it might one day expand from an 18-hole course to 27. The parcel is located along the Yukon River, adjacent to the existing course and north of Whistle Bend.

The term of the lease was 30 years with an option to extend another 30 years.

The society paid $125 annually to the Yukon government to keep that land in reserve, according to a 2010 appraisal of the parcel.

Sometime before June 2010, the Mountain View Golf Club approached the Yukon government for help with its debt. The club had taken out a $500,000 mortgage in 2008.

Archie Lang, then minister of Community Services, instructed his staff to come up with a way to help out the golf course, according to emails between department staff.

The correspondence suggests that the minister did not want the deal to look like a simple hand-out to the golf course.

Lang did not respond to a request for comment.

“Ultimately we will need to develop some options for Min Lang to consider re: assistance for the golf course. Some of the options kicked around some time back make me a bit apprehensive to be sure, but need to think everything through,” wrote Angus Robertson, then-deputy minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, on June 10, 2010.

On July 26, 2010, a manager with the lands branch provided a proposal that would see title of the leased land transferred to the City of Whitehorse, and the Yukon government pay the golf course’s debt as part of the deal.

“The premise here is to deal with the MVGC debt load which was the basis for the initial approach by MVGC to YG,” according to the email.

The deal, as proposed, would not “favour a NGO and create a ‘me too’ scenario, therefore political backlash is minimized.”

 

City disputes story

The City of Whitehorse didn’t then and doesn’t now have any interest in the land in question for potential future development.

This directly contradicts the deal ultimately signed with the golf course, which justifies the land transfer “to support potential future development in the area.”

“The City has that land in the long-term green space plan for the area and to express an interest in changing that to future development would be unacceptable to the City,” wrote Dan Boyd on July 26, 2010. He was an assistant deputy minister with Community Services at the time.

The city feels the same way today.

“We wouldn’t support that,” said Mike Gau, Whitehorse’s director of development services, in an interview this week.

“We would need an amendment to our official community plan, and there would be a lot of implications to the neighbourhood concept.”

The lack of interest from the city in developing the parcel didn’t stop the Yukon government from spending $9,900 in 2010 on a sole-sourced contract to determine the viability of the land for development.

The resulting report found that about 40 per cent of the parcel was not suitable for development at all.

It may be possible to develop some parcels, but servicing those lots would pose some problems, according to the consultant’s findings. The report does not address if the development would be feasible from an engineering or economic perspective.

In the end, the Yukon government went alone and inked a deal to pay $750,000 to the golf course in exchange for ending the lease agreement.

 

Whistle Bend blamed

The deal also allowed for the resolution of some confusion relating to the boundary between the existing golf course and the first two phases of the new Whistle Bend neighbourhood, but this concern was not connected materially to the land transfer.

But two communications briefing documents, from 2011 and 2013, demonstrate that the government wanted Yukoners to believe that the money traded hands because the city was interested in the land for future development. Which, it bears repeating, the city was not.

“As this land was a prime location for the future expansion of the Whistle Bend residential project, the Yukon government obtained an independent property appraisal and with the support from the City of Whitehorse, purchased the land from the Mountain View Golf Club in 2010,” according to a briefing dated Oct. 3, 2013.

These words appear under the heading “Suggested Response(s) by Yukon Government: (to public or media inquiry).”

And they are demonstrably false.

The area was not a prime location for future Whistle Bend expansion, and in fact the city would protest the contemplation of such an expansion.

The City of Whitehorse contends that none of its plans for Whistle Bend hinged on the land transfer.

The government did pay for an appraisal of the land, presumably to justify the money granted to Mountain View.

But to suggest that the government should pay market rate to the golf club ignores the fact that the territory already owned the land.

The Yukon government did not purchase the land from Mountain View. The title did not change hands. The golf club had paid $125 annually to hold the land in reserve, but had no plans to develop it.

 

Mixed messages

Until this week, the official story was that the land was needed for potential future development. That message is held up by briefing notes and the agreement itself.

These documents do not mention that helping Mountain View with its debt was a motivation for the deal.

On Thursday Community Services Minister Brad Cathers acknowledged that one of the goals of the deal was to help the golf course with its financial troubles.

In an interview Thursday, Cathers also said the deal helped the city to establish storm water management and a perimeter trail that were included in its plan for Whistle Bend.

This, too, is a new story.

These issues are not mentioned in previous communications briefings on the issue, in the agreement with the golf course, or in correspondence that the News has seen.

It is true that natural pothole depressions in the land parcel help with storm water management for Whistle Bend, and that the city plans to one day pave a trail that may skirt its edge.

But Gau with the city said those things were not necessarily contingent on Mountain View relinquishing its lease.

“I don’t think they would have objected if they weren’t going to build on it anyway,” he said of the golf club. “They had no short-term plans to expand. Likely it could have existed for quite a while before they got around to expanding, if they did at all.

“They were pretty forthcoming that it would be very difficult for them to afford an expansion anytime soon.”

 

Passing the buck

In the legislature this week, Cathers responded to questions on the issue by saying that he was not a cabinet minister at the time, and must rely on information provided by department staff.

Cathers and Resources Minister Scott Kent repeated those lines in a 10-minute telephone interview Thursday.

They said they don’t yet have enough information to know if the money was given to the golf course in an appropriate way.

They also said that giving money to non-profits in a time of need is a common and regular thing for the government.

In the legislature yesterday, Hanson said the issue is not the fact that the gave the golf course money, but how they did it.

“When Mount Sima came to the city and the Yukon government asking for help, they were told to present a business case. They had to open their books to public scrutiny. The ski community had to mobilize to demonstrate public support and raise some of the money. Mount Sima ultimately received funding from the city and the Yukon government, but only after an open, accountable and transparent process in which Yukoners had their say.”

Tom Amson, who was the president of the Mountain View Golf Club at the time, told the News this week that there was nothing wrong with how the government went about helping the club.

“The bottom line for me was, the golf course was in dire need of some help so the government was looking for ways to help it, and found a way. It’s no more complicated or underhanded than that. We wouldn’t have a golf course today if that hadn’t happened.”

The current president, Tony Hill, said he will not comment on government business because he is a government employee. Hill is the director of agriculture with Energy, Mines and Resources.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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