Mark Rendell

True cost of 2023 Canada Winter Games unclear

Council to vote Monday on whether to proceed with the project

Yellowknife is inching closer to hosting its biggest sporting event to date, but even with a City Council vote next Monday, it’s still unclear how much the Canada Winter Games will cost.

The games would see thousands of athletes, coaches and volunteers descend on Yellowknife for 18 different sports played over a two-week period in February or March of 2023.

Based on current estimates by City administration, the event will cost around $52.5 million for operations and infrastructure, split between the City, the Government of the Northwest Territories, the federal government and private sponsors.

Next Monday, Council will vote whether to proceed with the games and whether to start saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to meet the forecasted $10 million contribution to infrastructure. The accuracy of these numbers is important as the Whitehorse games in 2007 ended up costing tens of millions more than originally budgeted.

There seems to be interest, both amongst the councillors and the larger community, in the project.

“Taking on the Canada Winter Games will definitely be transformative for our city in terms of community development, development of officials, athletes, coaches,” said John Stephenson, president of the Yellowknife Ski Club, at Monday’s Municipal Services Committee Meeting. “There will be nobody in the city that won’t be somehow involved and inspired.”

However, the budget councillors are looking at to inform their decision next Monday is far from settled.

Operational Costs

Just under $27 million is budgeted for running the event itself – a number based on Sports Canada data from games held between 1999 and 2005. The GNWT and federal government are each expected to pay around $9.5 million. The City will make up the remaining $8 million, mostly through “in kind” support, such as City employees volunteering as officials or offering financial and IT support to run the event. This number, however, may very well jump, once data from more recent games is collected.

When Whitehorse hosted the games in 2007, the Yukon Government saw its operational costs more than quadruple, from a planned $2 million to $9 million, largely because it failed to budget for things like volunteers and marketing.

Infrastructure Costs

The other, potentially more troublesome, half of the $52.5 million budget is for capital investments in infrastructure. This $25.5 million will be funded through $3 million each from the GNWT and federal government, just under $10 million from the City and a remaining $10 million through corporate and private sponsorship.

A chunk of that will be put towards improving the Ski Club trails and turning the Bristol Pit into a suitable site for skiing and snowboarding. But by far the biggest portion of the infrastructure budget, around $22 million, is earmarked for an athletes’ village that may not even be permanent.

Renting temporary accommodation for the athletes is a “worst-case scenario,” said Grant White, the City’s Director of Community Services. But it’s also the scenario administration used to arrive at their $22-million estimate.

Ideally, said White, the City will partner with a private developer or the GNWT to construct permanent housing that could be put to another use after the games, as happened in Whitehorse after they hosted the 2007 games.

“If you want community buy in, we have to leave a legacy, and I think housing is an issue in this community and I think it’s going to be an important part of the success of these games,” said Coun. Linda Bussey.

Legacy projects, however, may add significantly to the current projected cost.

The Whitehorse example

When Whitehorse budgeted for the games in 2001, the idea was to have the athletes’ village built by a private developer. The territorial government agreed to put $21 million towards building an aquatic centre and multiplex, but had no plans to get involved in the construction of the athlete’s village.

In 2004, after four private developers failed to come up with proposals that met all the criteria put forward by Whitehorse’s Host Society, the Yukon government had to step in with a $20-million offer to build the athletes’ village as a legacy project that would become housing for students and seniors.

To complete the project on time, the territorial government had to issue outside architectural and project management contracts and the cost of constructing the two buildings soared to $34 million.

When the games were finished, the buildings did become housing for students and seniors – the kind of legacy projects that seem appealing to Yellowknife councillors.

But the cost of these “legacy projects” was unnecessarily high due to poor planning, as a 2008 Auditor General’s report on the Yukon Government’s role in the games makes clear.

Between the extra capital and operational costs, the territorial government spent $42.9 million more than it budgeted for in 1999. The games themselves cost twice as much as projected in 2001 – $120 million compared with the budgeted $64.4 million.

The Ruth Inch Pool

There’s also one major number not in the $52.5 million projection: the cost of upgrading or replacing Ruth Inch Pool. Before the games, the pool requires an overhaul expected to cost between $17 and $22 million, and perhaps as much as $30 million, if the City decides to replace the whole facility.

Because renovating or replacing the pool was already included in the City’s 25-Year Capital Plan, to be completed sometime between 2023-2025, City administration left it off the estimates for the games.

“The need to provide an upgraded facility for the CWG simply accelerates the need for this project to begin in late 2020 or early 2021, in order that the facility will be ready for test events during 2022 and the CWG during 2023,” notes the memo from administration.

As Coun. Rebecca Alty pointed out, however, removing the cost of the pool from the overall estimates may cause a problem. The City is hoping to raise 50 per cent of the pool’s cost from corporate sponsorship – an amount that may be as high as $15 million. They’re also trying to raise just under $10 million from sponsors to fund capital projects that don’t include the pool.

“The opportunity you have with Canada Winter Games is it’s Canadian in scope and you’re going to have a lot of Canadian sponsors who want to link themselves to the games, and so I think the fundraising effort will be easier for you than when it’s in the North and it’s about the North,” said Cathie Bolstad, who was president of the 2008 Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife.

Still, Alty is skeptical: “Raising $9 million through corporate private sponsorship is ambitious. But to try and raise $9 million and $15 million at the same time –  i.e. close to $25 million – that will require one strong fundraiser.”

“As intimidating as saying the games require $55 million in upgrades and new facilities, I think it’s true, and the $25-million figure isn’t the full picture,“ she said.