- Our Town
The challenge of selling an enormous hill
This is the final part of an eight-part series of excerpts from First Tracks: A History of Skiing in Revelstoke, the latest book from the Revelstoke Museum & Archives.
By the Revelstoke Museum & Archives
While Mount Mackenzie offered great skiing opportunities, it was struggling to pay its debts. For most of the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, interest rates in Canada were in the double digits. “The interest rates were killing us,” recalled Blake Franklin. In 1979-80 the Federal Business Development Bank recalled its loan and put the company into receivership.
In 1980, Darryl Andrews of Albert Canyon Recreation Ltd bought and ran the ski hill and cat skiing operations but the timing could not have been worse. By 1982 the economy was in a downturn. The new ski hill owner had to be affected by the poor economy and by mid-1983 the company was in serious trouble. In August, local business people formed the Mount Mackenzie Alpine Sport Society to work with the company to keep the ski hill running, but it was too late. The company went bankrupt.
In September, society vice-president Fred Beruschi announced, “Unless $250,000 is raised before October 15, Mount Mackenzie Ski Hill will not open for the coming season.” The society would qualify for government grants but community members and businesses would have to contribute about $60,000 and $75,000 respectively.
The society organized a massive fundraising campaign. Beruschi recalled, “We had every kid in town go house to house with (the slogan) SOS, ‘Save our Skiing.’ Bumming five bucks” – the cost of a society membership. By May 1984, the society raised almost $75,000 through public and business donations, issued $68,000 in debentures and sold 219 memberships. The City committed a $100,000 grant-in-aid toward the purchase and development of the hill.
By November 9, 1983 the society had a verbal agreement with the Federal Business Development Bank to buy two parcels of ski hill land, totalling 69 acres, including buildings, lifts and equipment, for almost $354,000. The agreement was on the condition that a second chair lift would be installed above the first one to ensure a longer skiing season. The society bought the ski hill and re-opened it on February 5, 1984. The promised second chair lift – the Monashee chair or the Powder Slug Express – opened almost a year later, on January 27, 1985. The chair extended up from the top of the lower chair (the Selkirk or Cut Chair).
Despite these efforts, by the end of the 1985-86 ski season, the Alpine Sports Society was struggling financially, operating at a deficit of more than $500,000. That year, the society sold “substantially all” its assets, including land, to the City for $322,000. The society could lease these assets back for $5 a year for five years, with the possibility of renewal.
The City of Revelstoke had a strong interest in seeing the ski hill succeed. In the early 1980s, mining was struggling, Downie Sawmills closed temporarily and the CPR was reducing its Revelstoke operations. By 1986, when the City purchased the ski hill, it was seeking to diversify the economy and support tourism, along with the more traditional resource and rail industries. In 1987 the City created Grizzly Plaza. Cafés were beginning to appear on Mackenzie Avenue and the tone of the town began to change from a resource-based community to one that also accommodated tourists from around the world.
The City “held on to the ownership because we wanted the continuity” of skiing, recalled former mayor Mark McKee. Ownership came at a great cost to taxpayers: the City was responsible for capital costs and the general costs of operating and maintaining the hill. “It cost us about $150,000 a year on average to subsidize the hill.”
Successive mayors and councils actively sought appropriate investors, a very difficult process because of the size of the development. The ski hill could boast 10,000 skiable acres and the enormous vertical drop, McKee explained, but that was also the drawback. It was so huge that it required a huge investment. “It was really difficult to find someone with deep enough pockets” to be able to develop and run the hill properly. Another drawback was Revelstoke’s distance from transportation centres. “We have air, rail and the Trans-Canada Highway” but none of these are sufficient for a major resort.
Around 1990, Carl Rankin, then a real estate developer in Toronto, introduced two brothers, Russell and Robert Powadiuk, who were also in the real estate business, to David and Paul Hughes, who had been interested in developing the Mount Mackenzie ski hill. The Powadiuk brothers made a trip to Revelstoke and saw the potential of the mountain. While they bought up land at the base of the mountain, they sought other investors who could make the development a reality and worked with professionals such as the U.S.-based Snow-E Engineering (now SE group) to develop the lift design. It would take just over 15 years from that first trip before the right investors were found and licensing attained to make the resort a reality.
First Tracks is available for sale at the Revelstoke Museum & Archives for $45, including tax.