Within the ski industry, there are few people who are happy about this year’s lack of snow.
Ken Saunders is one of the few with a smile on his face. As the executive director of the Edmonton Ski Club, Saunders found himself in the unusual situation of looking forward to warm fall weather as he struggled to get one of Canada’s oldest ski clubs up and running.
It all stems from the one thing other than snow that makes the ski industry tick—money. Or in the case of the Edmonton Ski Club, a lack of it. That was until this fall when Edmonton city council gave the club a life line, and a full seat at the table in the redevelopment of the entire Gallagher Hill, Connors Hill, and the Cloverdale area.
“The late start to winter has been a God-send,” admits Saunders. “We were a month behind on everything.”
City funding—to the tune of $388,000—wasn’t decided on until late September, and the actual money didn’t arrive until a few weeks after that. Preparations for the upcoming season were done largely on faith and good will.
“There was a lot of stress. People just had to trust they would get paid,” Saunders says.
How the club wound up in this situation is a complicated history of bad decisions and poor management. In recent decades, Edmonton’s other ski hills have been able to capitalize on the city’s ballooning population and growing interest in outdoor winter pursuits through aggressive marketing and then continued reinvestment back into facilities and lifts. Over this same period the club became increasingly insular as the organizers and volunteers of the two main clubs that use the Edmonton Ski Club as their home base—the Edmonton Alpine Ski Racing Society and the Edmonton Freestyle Ski Club—gradually became the organizers and volunteers that ran the ski hill as well.
“It was not that inviting to the public,” says Saunders, who sees both sides of the issue as he was club president for the last five years, but was first introduced to the club as a parent with children in the freestyle club.
Little revenue has been generated from the hill for years, making investment into the facilities challenging. As a result, the club now has an old clubhouse, and is the only hill without a chair or carpet lift in the Edmonton area.
Today, the entire issue of the Edmonton Ski Club’s future is set against the looming backdrop of the new LRT line that will stop right at the foot of the ski hill. When the club delivered its master plan to the city two years ago, it was decided that it should really be the Gallagher Park master plan since all stakeholders—including the Muttart Conservatory, the Cloverdale Community Association, and the Edmonton Folk Music Festival—will be impacted by the LRT.
“That was great,” says Saunders. “It’s what we always wanted. We are now at a point of influence with the city. We’re at the table with city planners.”
The city’s decision to extend financial aid to the club this fall followed a three year period in which it had shown its value to the city by growing the business, as well as attendance at the hill. The club also contributed to the community through events such as free skiing on Friday evenings.
“Council said we had proved it will work, and they wanted to make it work as well.”
Part of city’s aid package stipulated that Saunders become the executive director of the club, meaning he would get paid for the volunteer work he’s been doing for the last five years.
“It was always a dream to do what I enjoy doing as a volunteer and get paid for it,” he says.
With funding in place for the current winter, and a commitment from the city to make the club a part of the Gallagher Hill redesign, the Edmonton Ski Club is in good shape for this season, and in the long term—but Saunders worries about the interim years before the redevelopment begins.
“The next four or five years will be critical. We’re still two years away from the city presenting its master plan for the area, so realistically it will be about five years before any redevelopment starts,” he says.
The redevelopment could hold a tantalizing array of options for the club. Ideas being floated include adding another pyramid to match the Muttart Conservatory’s iconic design, or making a clubhouse that features a stage and seating area that could also be used by the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.
“Or how about a zipline that goes from downtown and ends at the Edmonton Ski Club,” a smiling Saunders wonders aloud.
“I’m so excited about how we’ve come to this point, but what lies before us is such an opportunity. It’s a monumental chance to significantly change how downtown looks with a properly developed Edmonton Ski Club.”
The 106th year of skiing at the Edmonton Ski Club should begin this weekend but, as always, the opening will depend on the weather. For many at the club, it will be a relief. A late start is better than no start at all.