Yellowknife’s bid to host the 2023 Canada Winter Games effectively died this afternoon, following a unanimous rejection by City Council.
The final vote won’t happen until next Monday, but during today’s Municipal Services Committee meeting, all eight councillors indicated they would oppose the bid, citing uncalculated risks, tough economic times, the inability to host alpine events and significant public opposition.
“I’ve received more emails and more input from the public on this one issue than any other as a councillor, and that feedback has been overwhelmingly negative,” said Coun. Julian Morse. “I would count one positive email against 20 negative emails, and I’ve received many more than that…[and] without community support it’s going to be very difficult to pull the games off.”
Coun. Adrian Bell began the discussion by calling into doubt the preliminary budget, which put the game’s cost at just over $50 million: “I don’t have a lot of confidence in the budget projections and the way we came up with these numbers. I think they’re quite vulnerable to changes.”
Even if the budget was correct, Bell continued, the City’s plan to fund its $15.9-million portion of the costs without raising taxes — through a combination of visitor levy, in-kind contributions and diverted GNWT formula funding — was itself suspect.
“We’re talking of drawing down capital reserves by $2.5 million, as if that doesn’t have an impact, but that very much much does have an impact. We have to replace the reserves after the games."
For Coun. Niels Konge, it was a simple matter of geography. Yellowknife wouldn’t be able to host alpine events, which he said would be unfair to aspiring Canadian athletes.
“Had this been a summer games bid, it would have been a much harder decision,” he said. “We can build a track; it’s a little bit hard to build a mountain.”
And the biggest bugbear plaguing the whole project — whether or not the GNWT would kick in the $26 million needed to build an Athletes’ Village that could be repurposed for public housing — was summed up by Coun. Rebecca Alty: “It concerns me the GNWT won’t formally commit on paper. I think it’s just too big of a risk to go with a verbal agreement, especially after all the recent financial talk from the GNWT. I think the City could end up on the hook for the whole housing project.”
“I think [housing for low-income people and seniors] are extremely important projects, but we should ensure those projects are designed specifically for the purpose intended,” added Coun. Shauna Morgan, who seemed, leading up to today’s discussion, the most likely to support the bid. “I’m concerned we’d end up with a sub-par athlete's village, then a non-ideal senior’s complex, or something that didn’t serve either purpose well.”
Although the rejection was complete, Coun. Linda Bussey suggested the committee’s work was not for naught; many of the facility upgrades their report suggested could be done piecemeal to attract high-performance sporting events without having to spend the full amount to host the games. And a number of councillors supported the proposed visitor levy, which could be used for more general tourism purposes.
“It would be great to see the levy funds go to tourism initiatives right away ... instead of putting half of the funds aside for a two-week event in seven years time. It would be great to see what we could do with a million-dollar tourism budget right away,” said Alty, who advocated, along with several other councillors, voting on the levy part of the motion separately next week.
Ultimately most councillors let pragmatism outweigh optimism, rejecting the bid with what appeared to be genuinely heavy hearts. Bell, however, did suggest one silver lining: contrary to the well-publicized idea that Yellowknife wouldn’t be eligible to host the games again until 2049, he said he’d heard from Canada Games officials that the rotation of cities will reset in the late 2020s. If the rotation changes, Yellowknife could be eligible to bid again in the 2030s.