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Financial concerns make city council hesitant to host 2026 AWG

The GNWT wants Yellowknife to host the 2026 Arctic Winter Games.
Emma Willoughby is all smiles as she waves her NWT flag during the 2018 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremonies in Hay River. The GNWT has asked the City of Yellowknife to consider hosting the 2026 Arctic Winter Games that were scheduled to happen in Russia, but the response was lukewarm at best. NNSL file photo

The GNWT wants Yellowknife to host the 2026 Arctic Winter Games.

Whether that happens is still up in the air but judging by some of the responses given to the idea on Monday, it’s going to be a hard sell.

The city’s governance and priorities committee met at city hall on Monday and heard a presentation from Gary Schauerte, the director of sport, recreation and youth with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), on why it would be beneficial for the city to host. The current hosting rotation would see the NWT take the reins in 2028; Yamal in Russia was slated to host the Games in 2026, but with Yamal suspended indefinitely due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine, that won’t be happening.

Schauerte told the committee members that the AWG International Committee had written to MACA Minister Shane Thompson to see if the NWT would consider moving up in the rotation.

He also said Yellowknife is the only community being considered for hosting, based solely on the fact that everything needed to host the Games essentially exists locally already.

“While the GNWT does have an interest in regional economic development, hosting the Arctic Winter Games in any other region other than Yellowknife would not be practical in 2026,” he said.

Schauerte cited short timelines, costs, a lack of experience and insufficient facilities as reasons why the event couldn’t be held outside Yellowknife.

The GNWT would only consider moving up in the rotation if Yellowknife agreed to host, he added.

Yellowknife last hosted the AWG in 2008 and Schauerte pointed to new or improved infrastructure that didn’t exist back then. He cited the Fieldhouse, the new Ecole Itlo — replacing the former J.H. Sissons School — and the new aquatic centre as drawing cards for potential tourists. There are also multiple arenas, gymnasiums and other buildings that could help support sporting competitions, he added.

According to the GNWT’s figures from the 2008 AWG in Yellowknife, the net economic benefit to the territory as a whole was $4.9 million, while Yellowknife saw $3.5 million of direct benefit. The average person spent $950 during the week of the AWG.

Making this work would cost money and Schauerte said the GNWT would be willing to help ensure no cost overruns would occur. He also said federal funding between $1.5 million and $2 million would probably be available, but a municipal contribution of some sort would be required.

The 2018 AWG, co-hosted by Hay River and Fort Smith, received $3.5 million in direct funding from the GNWT, along with $1 million of “in-kind” support. Schauerte indicated that this amount would be the starting point for any negotiations between the city and GNWT.

In comparison, for this year’s AWG in Wood Buffalo, Alta., the local municipality provided $5.4 million in funding and the budget is expected to be in excess of $13 million. The 2024 AWG in Mat-Su, Alaska, has a current price tag of just under C$10 million.

If Yellowknife is to host, Schauerte said a decision would be required by this spring, which would allow for a site visit from the international committee. MACA would then look for a formal declaration of support from the GNWT.

So with the presentation completed, how did councillors react? The best description would be tepidly.

‘Eyes wide open’

Coun. Tom McLennan said given that we live in a capitalist society and financial implications are a reality, he asked what a minimum cash contribution from the city would look like.

Schauerte said every host society is different, but a typical amount would be around $500,000, with in-kind support in terms of facilities and staffing.

City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said it’s a wonderful opportunity for Yellowknife, but it would be one where the city would have to go into it with “eyes wide open.”

“We are eyeball-deep in the construction of our new aquatic centre (and) this is consuming every bit of oxygen in the room,” she said. “That’s a big endeavour for the city, the biggest facility we’ve ever built. We are full on with that construction project right now. It’s taking a lot of time and energy, given the size and magnitude and complexity of that project.”

She also said there was a look back at what went into hosting in 2008 — a great event, she called it — but there were unforeseen issues that arose, which put a demand on the city’s resources.

Coun. Stacie Arden-Smith pointed out the issues surrounding accommodations during territorial trials for the 2023 Games last month, specifically the displeasure voiced by parents and athletes at the perceived poor arrangements.

During the 2008 AWG in Yellowknife, teams stayed in school classrooms around the city, but Arden-Smith said she doesn’t think that would work this time.

“I’m not quite sure having athletes sleeping on the floor in schools is going to be enough this time around,” she said. “It would be very difficult because we have a lot of workers come in, we have tourism that is now boosting up, so I’m concerned about our ability to accommodate such an event.”

Mayor Rebecca Alty noted what the host communities for the 2023 and 2024 AWG have committed financially and said it would be a challenge for the city to come up with that kind of cash.

She noted that if the city had to raise the funds, it would mean a tax increase somewhere in the neighbourhood of 14.5 per cent. Spread that out over three years, she added, and it would be $1.7 million per year in 2024, 2025 and 2026, a non-starter, in her opinion.

“Our next three years are heavy with regulatory projects… we have close to $40 million in capital projects the next two years (aquatic centre and new submarine water line),” she said. “I can’t see this being a priority that is higher than anything that we have on our work plan right now.”

Alty did say, however, that if the GNWT moved ahead with an approval to put forth a bid, the city would be happy to sit down and see what could be done.

A decision on next steps is expected in the spring.