A skater friend stayed with us this summer. He was highly impressed by the Riverdale Skate Park. His town of 80,000 near London has nothing like it. One would have to skate in nearby Watford to enjoy a similar facility, but Watford has 100,000 people and its skate park is much more crowded.
The $3.5 million cost of the park struck him as pricey. But on the other hand he met lots of Yukon skaters using it, which was fun.
His only suggestion was to add a roof so skaters could use it when snow is on the ground.
Which invites a thought game. Suppose you were premier. You’ve just wrapped up the budget. You’ve successfully managed to spend the $1.5 billion the money plane from Ottawa has dropped off, when you think, “Why not a little something special on top?”
You decide to borrow $2.7 million extra from the bank (a figure I will explain in a minute). The bank, of course, is willing to lend the Yukon government money. They know our children will also get transfer payments and will be able to pay it back.
But what to spend the money on? Housing? Addiction services? Low-carbon energy? There are so many issues in our community that could use more resources.
Here’s a quick menu with some choices.
You could build a nice, little six-unit social housing project to help half a dozen Yukon families get off the waiting list for housing. That’s $450,000 per unit. A bit pricey, but building prices are high these days. The good news is that Yukon families will enjoy the benefits of the project for decades to come.
Or what about health care? The papers have had headlines lately about the nurse shortage. You could use the money to pay a retention bonus of $4,500 to each of the around 600 nurses in the territory. It’s just one year, but with all the waiting lists it is a bad year to be losing nurses to burn out or hiring bonuses from the NWT. If you’re worried about being too generous to nurses, you could always make the money payable if they stay two more full years.
Since we are in the middle of an ongoing opioid crisis, you could hire more addictions counsellors. $2.7 million would pay for three addictions counselors for a decade if they cost $90,000 per year each.
With $2.7 million, you could pay for one-third of a windmill. That’s based on the costs announced for the four new windmills going up on Haeckel Hill. Those units are supposed to power 650 homes for the next 20-plus years, eliminating the need for 40 million litres of diesel.
One third of a windmill is not that inspiring, but maybe you could put the money aside and buy a whole windmill next year.
Perhaps you’re thinking of something really memorable. How about a clean energy challenge? Offer the $2.7 million as a prize to the investors who propose a project with the cheapest power and lowest carbon emissions? You might even get some game-changing new technology — for example, closed loop geothermal — to put the Yukon on the innovation map.
Geologists will tell you that the Yukon is full of hot rocks. A 2019 paper from the Yukon Geological Survey includes a map of the Yukon littered with hot springs. It talks about temperatures going up around 30°C per kilometre drilled. Since our friends in Fort St. John drill many kilometres down, we know it’s doable. The prospect of cheap power beckons.
Perhaps now is the time to put some serious money into trail and campsite building to attract even more hikers and mountain bikers. As reported in a previous column, the British Columbia government just upgraded the Samuel Glacier hiking trail on the Haines Road. $2.7 million would pay for several Yukon trail projects.
Community activists have made a number of intriguing suggestions that would be real legacies. One is upgrading the Hepburn tramway path on the west side of the Yukon River to the same level of walkability as the Chadburn trails. Another is a concerted effort to improve the trails around the airport perimeter, which have been badly affected by recent landslides and project closures.
Another sporting facility is an option. $2.7 million would only pay for a sixth of the cost of the new gymnastics and climbing gym. But there are sports that would benefit strongly from even a much smaller project. For example, you could pick up our English friend’s idea and put a roof on the skate park. Or use the money to boost current sport and recreation offerings rather than building something new.
You may have even better ideas. If so, I suggest you send them to the premier.
He just played a real-life version of this game. The Yukon government borrowed on top of the transfer payment in the latest budget.
And there was a $2.7 million project: Parking Lot Upgrades for the parking lot outside the premier’s office at the Smith (Main Administration) Building.
Somehow this project was not highlighted in budget handouts to media, but government communications officials have posted details on Facebook. They point out the “project will improve drainage, as the parking lot collects water after rainfall and snow melt.” They add that this is particularly important for Yukoners with mobility issues. Renovations will also include a “brand-new covered bike shelter, to support active transportation year-round.” Improvements to curbs and security lighting are also planned, as is infrastructure for future electric-vehicle charging stations.
The Parking Lot Upgrade project has benefits. But so do social housing, nurses and windmills. Being in government means making choices. And I suspect I am not the only person, looking at the list above, wondering if borrowing $2.7 million to upgrade a parking lot is the right priority.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.