Still Standing: Don’t Believe the GNWT about the Headframe

It’s confidential, it’s something the public aren’t privy to and it’s also bullshit. The press release from the GNWT’s senior communications advisor arrived at 4:46 pm on a Friday just as this past long weekend kicked off. An excellent choice of timing to drop a bombshell on Yellowknifers soon to be placated by three lovely late-summer days at the cabin. The news about the failure of the territorial government to do anything about the Robertson headframe has been known to insiders for over a week, but came as a surprise to most people outside inner circles.

Don’t blow up a huge and irreplaceable asset, you plunger-happy morons! 

The short press release stated: “Confidential discussions between the GNWT and Miramar have now concluded and the GNWT has determined that a suitable agreement could not be reached.” No explanation as to why an agreement could not be reached was offered, which continues to shroud the conversation in mystery, while painting a picture of a government that genuinely tried to do something to save the headframe. Don’t believe it.

That terse press release may be expanded upon by an upcoming press conference, in which I’m sure a picture will be painted of the GNWT trying hard and failing to find a business argument for the headframe. But that’s not the case. The government, at all levels, has dragged its feet so hard that you’d think save-the-headframe proponents were proposing blocking YKTrader at work and axing Donny Days. How they somehow turned the structurally sound, tallest structure North of 60 into a liability speaks volumes about the unimaginative bureaucrats we’re dealing with. As we suffer through another turn on our perpetual cycle of resource curse economics, the government can’t seem to see any opportunity for economic diversification beyond tourism — yet an agreement on a $20 million piece of tourism infrastructure for 1/10th the price is somehow “unsuitable”?

That this is an unacceptable risk for the return speaks volumes about the inability of the GNWT to deliver anything beyond platitudes and talking points.

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Do I sound like I’m taking this a little personally? Well, I guess I am. The government’s lack of vision actually frustrated me enough a few years ago that I sat down and wrote up a plan to save the Robertson headframe.

My personal involvement began one day when I started thinking the headframe had some interesting historical parallels with the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower was almost torn down in 1909 when its permits ran out. It wasn’t in-vogue at that moment in time, and was only saved because of its usefulness as a radio transmitter. It’s now the world’s most visited paid monument, and rakes in at least as much money as the pickpockets around its base.

Nobody sane compares the Eiffel Tower to the Robertson headframe, but inspired by this idea of having our cake and eating it too, I invested a couple of weeks in 2014 into doing market research and writing a business plan to turn the headframe into a tourist attraction. I did the numbers and found that while it wasn’t a cash cow, it still had a lot of potential, and could at least cover the cost of maintenance in perpetuity. Essentially the headframe is an asset, and can cover most or all of its $100,000 or so a year maintenance costs one day with $8 tickets to the top and a souvenir shop. My company at the time, the adventure capital firm Cloudworks, published the plan online — you can see a summary that EDGE published at the time here — and handed it to all levels of government. We were happy to support anyone running with the idea and simply saw the business plan as a public service in the town that we operated.

I think we realised that things weren’t going anywhere fast when we attended a save-the-headframe meeting at the Multiplex. Some attendees wanted a greenhouse/restaurant — no one is going to fund a $25 million dollar greenhouse if we can’t even agree to $1-2 million dollars to just keep it standing for another decade. Some of the mining heritage people insisted dogmatically “It’s history! Save the headframe!” whilst banging their fists. Even though I personally would be happy to see a share of my taxes go towards preserving history, not everyone does, and why should taxpayers “just pay” for my personal priorities?

When my turn came to talk about my plan to bootstrap the headframe as a tourist attraction at little-to-no cost to the public I was scolded by the mining heritage people for slipping up and calling it the Con headframe instead of the Robertson headframe — which lost me half the room. I’m sure my eye-rolling about turning a steel headframe into the world’s most expensive greenhouse lost me the other.

At that time, the multi-headed save-the-headframe group couldn’t pull together in one pragmatic direction, which is doom for projects like this when the government are on the other side. This is because the government has something we don’t have: time. They have kicked the can down the road for a decade, and they can continue to wait out the aging mining heritage crowd until they’re out of the picture, as well as waiting out the optimism and hope of anyone in the public. I’m sure they’ll think they’re vindicated one day when everyone is either dead or exhausted.

So around we go again. This time the idealists-with-a-biz-plan have dropped off out of political exhaustion, and we’re left with those dogged, grey-haired mining heritage people, the most determined of the group, still standing. And at this point, I’d rather beat this incompetent bureaucracy than have everything work out just the way I wanted, so I’m going to throw my hat in with them.  

Right now, it seems fairly obvious that we all just need to say the same thing to the government: don’t blow up a huge and irreplaceable asset, you plunger-happy morons! For now, let’s put our small differences aside and fall in line behind Walt Humphries and his gang. And hey, if as we fall in line, we  find ourselves moving towards the Robertson headframe being a paid-for, self-sustaining tourist attraction that doesn’t cost taxpayers money in the long term, I’m not going to complain.

Paige Saunders is a partner in VERGE Communications, which owns EDGENorth.



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