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Shames: The people's mountain

Northern B.C. community officially took control of Canada's first co-operative ski area on Jan. 19



The locals at Shames Mountain near Terrace, B.C. are used to celebrating after a powder day in their corner of the Coast Mountains. On Saturday, Jan 19 there was little new snow on the ground but the party at Galloway's Mountain Bar was one of the biggest yet. The locals were celebrating a momentous occasion in the ski area's 22-year history, they now owned it.

"It's official, we own (Shames) now," said Jon Hopper, founding member of My Mountain Co-op (MMC), the community co-operative that formed to save the struggling ski area.

"Last year we operated on a lease agreement, it was still owned by the original owners and we were operating on their behalf. Now all the paperwork is finalized and the 1,000-plus members of our co-operative own it outright, there's no debt associated with it."

MMC was born out of Friends of Shames, a community non-profit society that was formed after the Shames Mountain Ski Corporation — a group of local business owners — grew tired of covering the annual loss sustained by the mountain.

"After 20-plus years we were running out of gas," said Gerry Martin, 70, former director of the Shames Mountain Ski Corp.

"We were tired of re-investing year after year and a lot of us were retiring. All along we thought the best vehicle was a not-for-profit. When the co-op model came along, well that made a hell of a lot of sense. That's the way it will be sustained and that's the way it will grow."

The idea of a mountain co-op was hatched by Friends of Shames (FOS), a non-profit society formed by local community members in 2008 who were looking for a way to keep Shames open after it had sat on the market for several years and was at risk of closing.

"The aim of FOS was to look at long term stability for the mountain, whether that was helping bringing a buyer in or buying it and running it themselves," said Hopper.

"FOS did a lot of research and essentially came up with the best business model which was a community service co-operative."

Such a business model for a ski area is the first of its kind in Canada. There have been several attempts at the co-operative model south of the border, the most successful being Mad River Glen (MRG) in Vermont which switched to co-op in 1995. A share in MRG costs $2,000 and currently there are approximately 2,150 shares held by 1,700 individuals. MMC has managed to sell just over 1,000 memberships for the Shames co-operative at $299 each, the relatively low cost an enticement for visitors as well as local and regional residents to buy in. Membership allows input at all public meetings held by MMC as well as discounts on season passes.

While many co-op members live in nearby Terrace, Shames is also frequented by a large contingent of skiers and riders from Prince Rupert, 137 km away.

"The biggest thing is keeping it running," said Prince Rupert resident Kristoffer Pucci.

"It was touch and go there for a couple years when the original investors were losing money. Something had to happen. It would be a tragedy if it shutdown. "

The thought of losing their ski hill was almost too much for many locals to bear. Since the launch of MMC and everyone making a personal investment in Shames's future, the atmosphere on the slopes has changed significantly.

"Since the co-op has taken over, it's better because everyone has a more vested interest," said Renny Talbot, also of Prince Rupert.

"It feels like there's more of a community for sure. Before people didn't really have that sense of attachment and I think everyone took the ski hill for granted."

Tara Wilson owns Ruins, a board shop in Terrace and also sits on the board of directors for MMC. She has seen the shift in attitude first hand both in the town and on the ski hill.

"Last year on opening day all of a sudden there was a new vibe on the mountain," she said.

"All of a sudden we noticed more people picking up bottles off of the tables. There seems to be a lot more camaraderie now."

The local skiers and snowboarders now share something more than a passion for powder, they now all share the common bond that they have stepped up to keep the lifts at Shames turning.

"This is our mountain now and our future is in our own hands, said Wilson.

"It's empowering but we have a big job to do, big shoes to fill and a big responsibility to the community as the first board of the co-op to lay a blueprint for success and set a precedent for the future."