The Community that Raised a Chairlift

🕔Dec 01, 2011

It’s early November and snow is steadily creeping down the mountainsides. While skiers throughout the region are dusting off their gear, Terrace-based non-profit My Mountain Co-op is frantically working toward a purchase agreement that would keep Shames Mountain operating. Meanwhile, a group of volunteers is investing countless hours into getting the ski area ready for opening day.

In the process of turning Shames Mountain into Canada’s first non-profit co-operative ski area, it seems that My Mountain Co-op is putting “community” squarely back into community ski area.

“We want to make this a community recreation facility,” My Mountain Co-op founding director Jamie Hahn says. “It’s so cool how it’s all come together. There’s just the right people with the right skill sets.”

Despite still hammering out the purchase agreement’s final details, Hahn sounds positive. He adds that the agreement, though not 100 percent complete, is “very close.”

“We’re kind of the chicken before the egg. We’re hiring and moving ahead and we don’t actually own the mountain yet,” he says, adding that a final agreement is only weeks away. “We have to make some decisions as we go here, or we won’t be ready to open. We’re going ahead and we have been for the past few months.”

Hahn’s enthusiasm is good news not only for local skiers, but for Terrace and the surrounding communities of Kitimat and Prince Rupert as well. Five years ago, Shames’ current owners—five local businessmen—listed the mountain for sale at $1.3 million. Ever since, the popular ski area’s future has swung in the balance.

Two years ago, non-profit organization Friends of Shames formed with the purpose of developing Shames’ long-term viability. In reviewing the ski area’s business plan, it determined that a non-profit, co-operative model was the mountain’s best odds for survival. The result was My Mountain Co-op, a non-profit organization that has been negotiating with the current owners ever since.

Pride of ownership
My Mountain Co-op began selling memberships for the co-operative ski hill earlier this year and by the end of October had sold nearly 800 individual memberships at $299 apiece and almost 100 business memberships for $599 each. Including donations, the group has generated $385,000 toward the mountain’s purchase. But perhaps the biggest payoff from making the ski area community-owned is pride of ownership from the community.

“A big part will be that we’re going to subsidize the operations with volunteers,” Hahn says. “Now the buy-in is so much more because you’re doing it for yourself, not a shareholder.”

He said some volunteers were investing up to 40 hours a week preparing the runs for opening day. “There’s a ton of work going on at the hill right now, primarily all volunteer.”

“The other side of it is we’re trying to develop relationships with the cities to have an annual contribution for the first few years to keep us going. We’ve got people looking at every possible grant and funding opportunity for non-profit organizations.”

The City of Terrace recently threw its support behind My Mountain Co-op by donating office space, buying a business membership and contributing $15,000 toward this season’s operating budget. Future contributions will be reviewed in the upcoming municipal budget discussions, says Terrace mayor Dave Pernarowski, who was running for re-election at press time.

“It’s a little easier for governments to participate in an operation that’s a non-profit structure,” Pernarowski says, adding that the District of Kitimat followed up with a similar $15,000 contribution. “We saw the start of what we were hoping would happen, which was a domino effect throughout the region.”

Attractive amenity
Although locally owned, Shames is currently run by a for-profit corporation and one of the biggest challenges it faces is the area’s relatively small population base. The city’s population of 12,000 dipped over the last decade by almost 1,000, although it appears to be rebounding. Regionally, the population fell from almost 20,000 to 18,500 between 2001 and 2006. Pernarowski notes that Shames Mountain is an attractive amenity to potential workers considering moving to the area.

“That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to keep an area like Shames, because people coming into the area want a facility like this,” he says. “The other thing that I’ve been doing is personally talking to the major corporations moving into this region about corporate sponsorship.”

Two decades ago, a group of local investors identified Shames Mountain—35 kilometres west of Terrace—as a potential ski area to service the region. Twenty years later, Shames Mountain has recorded losses in the neighbourhood of $27,000 per year and its current owners are ready to retire.

Harry Murphy is one of five business partners that started Shames Mountain. He hopes to see the purchase agreement finalized in the next couple weeks.

“There are still a couple conditions. Basically, we’re requiring the government to come to the table on some of the outstanding amounts that are owing,” he says, adding that negotiations are currently taking place among three parties: My Mountain Co-op, Shames’ current ownership and the province, mainly about debts relating to early lease payments and a Tourism Development Loan going back 20 years.

“We had a significant kick at the can and it’s time for a new group with new enthusiasm and new ideas. There’ll be a small feeling of sadness, but it’s time,” Murphy says. “There’s been ongoing discussion for probably two years. It’s been a long process.”

As for whether he’s excited for the upcoming ski season, “Oh, for sure!” Murphy says. “I have my membership.”

Community co-operation
The co-operative model isn’t entirely new for ski hills. In Vermont, Mad River Glen and Magic Mountain both operate as co-op not-for-profits. In the Western US, Bridger Bowl in Montana has been successfully running as a community co-operative for more than half a century. Operating since 1954 as a community-owned ski hill, 500 Montana residents make up the organization, which remains debt-free and manages to put aside enough money to add a new lift every few years.

Closer to home, Mount Cain on Vancouver Island has been running as a not-for-profit society since it opened in 1978 although, unlike My Mountain Co-op, voting power is given solely to a board of directors. The society recently leveraged its non-profit status to get grant funding to build a 33-bed hostel as well as two rental cabins.

My Mountain Co-op would similarly like to develop a hostel and cabin colony at Shames, which currently has no on-hill accommodation. However, its first priority will be getting the ski area up and running. My Mountain Co-op’s initial $2 million fundraising goal included the $1.3 million asking price, $175,000 for snow-cat replacement and repairs, and almost $300,000 to overhaul the lifts and day lodge.

Details of the pending purchase agreement aren’t being discussed, Hahn says.

Membership sales are ongoing and a $299 lifetime membership buys not only a vote in the ski area’s operations, but a $100 discount from season’s passes and other community discounts. The mountain is expected to open Dec 9.

“We’re realistic, but very optimistic. It’s going to be a lot of work and ongoing. These community things—it takes the energy of the people to make it work,” says Hahn. “It’s going to be a big relief when that first chairlift goes by.”