Airing Out the Laundry on Searchmont Ski Hill

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The General Manager has resigned, the current Board Chair may not return and some Searchmont residents are upset. The bills have been paid, the deficit reduced and new policies enforced. The Mountain isn’t going anywhere. Are the skiers coming back?

It’s been two years since Justus Veldman slid into his role as Chair on the Searchmont Ski Association Inc. Board (SSAI) and his leadership has not been met without criticisms. Not often reported, perhaps for fear of crumbling the delicate mountain or of Veldman’s influence alone, some members of the Searchmont community and some former colleagues have questioned his management style and wondered about ulterior motives. Springtime is a good time to air out the laundry, so that’s what we’re doing today.

Regarding the end of the very short 2015-2016 ski season, Veldman is positive. “For the very first time in a long time we’re ending the season with all the bills paid. We won’t be in a financial position where we have to struggle to survive throughout the summer.”

Getting to this point in two years required some fancy moves. In 2014, the hill was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

According to Paul Suda, who had been personally requested by Veldman to help with 2014 operations set-up, the hill nearly did not open in 2014. Suda had previous management experience of the resort in 1979-80 and 1997-98. During that time the hill was doing about 80,000 ski visits per season. When he returned in 2014 the hill had lost over 50% in traffic, hosting about 35,000 ski visits per season.

Suda acknowledges the challenge presented by weather conditions but ultimately attributes the dramatic decline in ski visits to poor marketing and ultimately Board governance. “The marketing was just the pits. The Board ran the ski hill into the ground. They were about $400,000 to $500,000 in the hole. They decided to fold it. The ski hill was not going to open. Now, that did not sit well with Veldman because Veldman needed it as one of his crown jewels in his Destination North plan.”

Justus Veldman, Rivers Edge Developments

“The hill has never been in a better financial position to open than it is today.” ~Justus Veldman, Rivers Edge Developments

Veldman, known for developing distressed industrial properties through his business Riversedge Developments Inc., is not unware that some people question his interest in the hill. “I don’t have an intent. I think it’s a fantastic asset to the community and one that deserves saving.”

Destination North is another brainchild of Veldman’s, conceptualized to create a regional tourism attraction that is sustainable and marketable. Veldman envisions bringing small independent tourism products together –like Searchmont Hill, the Agawa Train, Entomica etc., to resource share. Resource sharing could include sharing personnel like an accountant or a marketing strategist. “It has everything to do with creating a regional tourist product that is sustainable.”

Last year the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation (EDC), purchased Searchmont Resort from SSAI to ensure continuity of financially stable operations. “Part of the ongoing discussions with the EDC is the idea to bring all of these small tourist entities that are marginal at best, to share resources at cost,” explained Veldman adding, “There’s no profit in it.”

There are different accounts about how Veldman stepped into his Board position but what is known with certainty is that once Veldman was inaugurated as Chair, the Board membership was cut in half. A move that all agree was necessary. “It made sense,” said Suda. “Twelve Board members is too cumbersome, there was no coming to consensus. The way it happened may not have been perfectly according to by-laws but that was what needed to be done.” Veldman maintains that Board protocol has been followed at every juncture.

Getting ready for opening day in 2014 was a tremendous undertaking. As Suda recalled, Searchmont had lost its insurance due to non-payment, a liquor license was denied due to non-remittance of taxes and the resort was owing thousands of dollars in GST. There was some heavy duty maintenance that needed to be done, especially on the main lift which was up for a 5 year audit.

Veldman remarked, “There were threats of having the bank account seized, we were way beyond the overdraft. We had no general manager and we had no WSIB to cover people to work. SSAI had no capacity to cover any of that at the time. We needed certified, insurable staff to hang all the chairs back on the cables, certify the lifts, repair the groomer and who was going to bank roll that? So S&T, being the community minded business that they are, stepped up.”

According to Veldman, S&T agreed to take on the work and were understanding that payment for their contract would be received once Searchmont began generating a cash flow that year. “In 3 week’s time the hill was safely certified.”

“The work was done quite well,” remarked Suda of S&T’s speedy contribution to the 2014-15 season. “We were able to open on December 20th, 2015.”

By this time, Suda had been formally asked by Veldman to fill the General Management vacancy for the season. Though Suda would choose to leave before the season was up, he agreed to step into the role. However, Suda did not agree with Veldman’s next decision that 2014-15 season.

“He decided he was going to hire S&T to run outside operations. I insisted that he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t lose control of the most essential and important ingredient in the whole operation –and that is snow, snow surface. In the end he did what he wanted to do. So S&T hired our people and everything was out of our control.”

While S&T put Searchmont employees on their pay roll to make snow and maintain equipment, Suda said the decision cost the SSAI an extra $150,000 that year owing to the fact that the company paid their workers a higher wage than what Searchmont would have and in addition, overtime hours were racked up.

“The whole thing cost over $400,000 and it could have been done for $250,000,” commented Suda.

In a December 2015 article Sootoday reported that the EDC would be buying out Searchmont’s $750,000 mortgage and spending an additional $750,000 on unpaid bills. Suda believes a significant portion of unpaid bills was weighted by the amount owing to S&T.

“There was an extreme amount of financial stress within Searchmont,” commented Veldman. “There was a massive amount of unpaid bills. I believe in principle that Searchmont is a contributor to the local economy from the perspective of local skiing and the tourism that it drives to hoteliers and to the region, especially during the downhill races, would suffer major loss if the hill didn’t open. So after a long time negotiating with the EDC, Searchmont’s first mortgage was paid off.”

Over the past two seasons, the Board, under Veldman’s watch, wasn’t just dealing with catching up on bills and certifying equipment. Along with those responsibilities came the very significant obligation to the Searchmont community. For decades the culture of the little village has been fashioned by their primary industry, the mountain.

*****

In 2011, Statistics Canada reported the population of Searchmont at 293. Like many small towns, and so the locals say, the folks that live there keep to themselves but are always at the ready when a neighbour is in need. During Searchmont Ski Resort’s off seasons –all three of them, the little community would come together to volunteer their elbow grease and home tools to keep the place spiffy. When the resort held events or fundraisers they would come out to lend their financial support too. When the ski season was in full swing, many of the locals would return to the hill to take up their usual posts at the resort. At the end of the season, most were laid off and the cycle began all over again. That’s just the way it has always been. And according to most Searchmont folk and regulars, it was done that way for the sheer love of the place.

But this past season things were done a little differently and for the first time ever, Searchmont’s laid-off employees -who had left slippers, family pictures and other homey sundries in their desks and lockers, weren’t called back to resume their stations. Instead, they were notified that should anyone be interested in applying for former positions their résumé would be welcomed.

Of the break from tradition Veldman credited the new General Manager, Colin Wilson. Wilson came onto the hill in 2015. “He presented the process to the Board and we approved. And we supported him whole heartedly on it. Everyone applied for positions in order to qualify and quantify the best candidate for a certain position.”

Dave and Isobel Dunlop

“We want the hill to do well. We believe the hill will survive. We just can’t face it anymore.” ~Dave and Isobel Dunlop on the edge of their property, Searchmont hill in the background.

Dave and Isobel Dunlop are relative newcomers to the Searchmont community but have worked on the hill during the ski season. Both were professionals in their previous careers. Dave is an engineer and Isobel a certified financial planner. Not quite ready for retirement, the seasonal work was an ideal transition from their full-time careers.

“And it was fun. I loved it. The place had a great vibe,” added Isobel.

Dave worked as the only licensed security guard on the hill and Isobel worked in Customer Service and ran the ski school. Both went to their interviews. Dave was offered a job as a cleaner and Isobel a cashier position. Both positions offered minimum wage- a decrease in their normal hourly wage. Dave put up a fight and his regular position was offered to him. But Isobel was faced with the unpleasant decision that would force her to accept the cashier position –her neighbours job, or no position at all.

“I only applied for my job in Customer Service because that was the only job that I had ever done and I was offered the cashier position. I said ‘but that’s my neighbour’s job. I can’t take my neighbour’s job’,” remarked Isobel woefully.

The Dunlops as well as three other former employees spoke with the Northern Hoot about the new hiring practice, expressing confusion and questioning why people lost their jobs or were forced into minimum wage or underemployment situations.

Veldman was resolved in his defense of the past year’s hiring procedure. “To not have a hiring process- which was in the past, everybody just automatically getting their job back, is not a sustainable way of doing things. The process is normal and people don’t understand if we don’t start implementing some of these policies and procedures at Searchmont, Searchmont will not survive.”

Veldman went on to say that policies and procedures at the resort had been lacking and the reaction from the community about the 2015-16 hires reinforced the issue. “To get an uproar from people that don’t like a process of hiring exactly points out that there was none. It was just a presumed repeat of employees- and there are great repeat employees. About 70% of the people working at Searchmont, are from Searchmont.”

But the Dunlops are concerned about their new community and feel that job priority must go to people living in Searchmont.

“Everybody that lives here are very employable and bring a wealth of knowledge and skills. It’s just very sad,” said Isobel as her voice choked and eyes moistened.

Dave added, “Not everyone can get to town easily but at least they can get to Searchmont hill. And the people here are tough. They are hard workers. In the summer they’ll go and cut hemlock until the hill reopens. And 80% of the homes around here are heated with wood. It doesn’t come from the grocery store. These people go out in the bush, cut it, split it and haul it.”

Adam Hayward has been perhaps the most vocal of those speaking out about the new hiring process. Hayward worked for over 10 years as the resorts marketing and event manager. Hayward made a little more than minimum wage but loved the hill and the Searchmont community. So much so that he recently bought a home and moved his family there.

“I knew I could make a lot more if I did this job anywhere else. But I did it because it was a not for profit,” shared Hayward from his home. “I was absolutely pleased that I wasn’t working for a multi-national, that we were mandated to help kids. All of these things are super important to me.”

For Hayward, the resort was a second home, a second family. “When my son was born I would work with him in my arms. They provided childcare for me. I’d go off on my lunchbreak and take him on the bunny hill and teach him how to board and now he competes. My kids would walk through the kitchen and all the ladies would be like ‘come here’ and they’d give them cookies. And in terms of the community out there, over the years I really got to know the people. They trusted me. I helped their kids. I watched their kids grow up. There were kids that I taught how to snowboard and now they’re teaching my kids how to snowboard.”

The 2015-16 season was the first that Hayward wasn’t called back to his position. “The shock of it was too much for me. Every review I had from management was great. For the past two years I’ve gotten promotions and raises. When I was off this past summer I kept my keys for the building –they unlock every single door. They said ‘keep your keys, we’ll keep your email open’. You know what I mean?”

When the regular employees weren’t offered their jobs back the common explanation heard was “there’s someone better suited for the job”. But for people like Hayward, the Dunlops and other former employees, they’re not buying it.

“Do you mean to tell me with all of my experience the role I’m most suitable for is as cleaner?” Retorted Hayward.

“Nobody asked us about our qualifications in the interview,” recalled Isobel. “None of us were asked that. All of this wealth of experience and nobody was interested.”

“It was all a sham to get everyone back down to minimum wage,” dryly put Dave.

On the issue of job reductions and lower wages -minimum wages, Veldman remarked, “We had massive issues trying to save the hill. This year’s power bill jumped from $50,000 to $75,000. In the best scenario we’re trying to run this asset 80 days of the year, I don’t know if will have even operated for 50 days this season. To be fiscally responsible to the members, moving into this season, massive staff reductions had to happen in order to end up with the least amount of deficit possible. Very difficult decisions had to be made by the GM and the Board supported him.”

Adam Hayward

“People drive their four wheelers and snow machines to work – to Searchmont, and bum rides to town once a week for groceries. There’s a lot of poverty here. A lot of people are living in houses that are generational so they aren’t necessarily affording a mortgage. If this Superior Skills program is continued and if it allows Searchmont to put off hiring people that live here, then, like I said, they cut everyone’s everything.” ~Adam Hayward

However, Hayward and the Dunlops believe that a subversive movement is underfoot upon the hill and question the introduction of Destination North staff at the resort and the busing of Sault Ste. Marie participants from Veldman’s Superior’s Skill Training program. The program, a partnership with Destination North and Ontario Works, provides 8-week long intensive job skills training to people in receipt of social assistance. The government pays a wage subsidy to Destination North for each participant during the length of the 8-weeks of training.

Suda, Hayward and many others have commented on the presence of Destination North staff taking on job responsibilities at the Searchmont Hill and the costs that were incurred because of this sub-contracting.

“When Destination North came in we were told that they were coming in as ‘think tank people’. That is how it was put to us. But they just came in the door and they just stayed. They took the management jobs,” remarked Isobel.

“I know, I know, that Destination North was invoicing Searchmont for doing jobs that didn’t need to be done or for doing jobs that Searchmont staff could be doing. I know that the General Manager was pissed off that he had to cut cheques for Destination North,” remarked an adamant Hayward.

Because Veldman is a Chair of the Board, the issue of conflict of interest has been brought to the table though Veldman restates that Board protocols have been followed. Not without a note of frustration in his voice, Veldman responded to the claims.

“If Destination North, and most of it was my own Rivers Edge Development company, had actually been paid for those bills I would love to have that discussion. But instead Rivers Edge donated well over $100,000 to the hill at my cost. My very own dollars. So somebody that says ‘you outsourced to your own company’ yeah well because we have a hill to save. I love the asset there. I think it’s a great community piece and I made a very conscious decision to donate a tremendous amount of my staff’s time and any costs that were incurred at cost- that I had to pay for because Searchmont had no money, are still a receivable. I’m at a loss for why it is that people want Searchmont to be open, want to pay as little as possible for a lift ticket but don’t realize that the sustainability of the hill is extremely difficult to put together. It’s super frustrating to think that people believe that there is some sort of profit to be made at Searchmont. It’s not the case.”

The arrival of Superior Skills Training participants didn’t sit well with former employees either who believe that they were displaced by the ‘free’ labour.

While Hayward recognizes the value in the program he believes situation is an ironic one should the Superior Skills program threaten job security for existing Searchmont employees. “They bused all these participants out every single day from the Sault, they gave them lunch money, bought them boots… You take a program like that and you operate it on a regular basis, and put it in a finite community like Searchmont – and then you see how it takes jobs away- there’s no way of disputing that.  It will be interesting to see how many people in Searchmont, 5 years down the road, will require assistance. All the people that work here- people in Searchmont require EI to hold them through during the off season. To the people that don’t have enough hours for employment insurance if they don’t have work or can’t get enough work –they’re going to go to welfare and when they go there ,welfare is going to send them to Destination North’s Superior Skill training.”

“I haven’t seen that style of management since the 60’s,” remarked Dave.

“It’s almost like slavery. This is what equates to what we see happening there- busing in the people. It’s pretty degrading how the people are being treated,” added Isobel.

When Veldman was asked about the above perceptions he was quiet for a long time before replying. “These are such…it is so disheartening, Superior Skills is such an awesome, unique program that together with Sault College has had provincial recognition on the success rate of training people a skill that they otherwise didn’t have. And if I may add, a lot of people that went through the training received employment and only one of the individuals that went through the training ended up being employed at the hill.”

*****

For Brian Mealey his greatest concern is the continuation of a rich legacy that has provided multitudes of children to not only embrace skiing but to also fall in love with the beauty that Northern Ontario provides. Mealey is a respected man on the hill. He’s a legend, as much loved for his gifted coaching approach with children –many of whom have grown under his guidance and gone on to become national and international champion skiers, as he is endeared for his eccentric charms.

Brian Mealey

“Take a look at what we have here. We have a ski hill, a lake, bush and scenic country here that is second to none. I don’t care where you go, there is nothing better than what is here.” Brian Mealey

Mealey came to the hill in 1962 as a skier. He began coaching in 1967 and has done so for 49 years. “The last six years have been tough,” shared Mealey. “Some people thought that someone younger should be coaching.” But those that know Mealey scoff at the notion. Mealey, with washboard abs and buns of steel, could out ski any 19 year old on the hill. “Well, I like to ski fast,” smirked Mealey.

But in all seriousness Mealey mists up when he talks about his love of the hill. And it is his greatest hope that the resilient community will weather change and keep in mind the rich culture that has developed because of the hill. “The whole area needs to come together and ski like a force,” he said thrusting forward his clasped hands. “There is too much history out there and there has been too many people that have volunteered hundreds and hundreds of hours for Searchmont not to thrive.”

Mealey is convicted that Searchmont must be run as a ski hill- not as a 4 season destination spot as others have put forward. “What we need to do is get that quad lift operational and we need to build an intermediate hill for new skiers. Something for people to graduate to from the Bunny Hill. A lot of people aren’t ready for the mountain right off the Bunny Hill.”

Like Mealey, Veldman strongly believes the success of the hill is possible should it be run as a seasonal community amenity and one that receives support from the Sault Ste. Marie municipality. “Searchmont ski hill has very limited, if not no financial support from any ongoing regional municipal support. When you look Sudbury and North Bay some of these assets are owned by the City and run like a soccer park. In Searchmont’s case- it has had to fend for itself. I believe that now that the debt has been reduced, now that the EDC is obviously supportive in turning the hill around and turning it into a viable asset, I think the opportunity exists to say ‘look- should we be treating this like a soccer park or a hockey arena? Is this an important piece of City infrastructure? Or does it just need to hobble along and every new Board and new GM has to struggle and basically fight for survival’…which is not a sustainable model. It should be treated like a soccer park. It should get annual ongoing support no different than a soccer park or hockey rink or any other infrastructure in the City. I don’t know that will get there but I think without that it would be almost unfair to Board’s and GM’s to run the place as sustainably as they can.”

The Northern Hoot recently learned about the resignation of Searchmont’s General Manager, Colin Wilson. Wilson preferred not to comment about the matter providing only the stock reply that there were “good things happening at Searchmont” and that he was resigning for “personal and professional” reasons.

Veldman confirmed Wilson’s resignation. “We accepted Colin’s resignation. He is absolutely commended on a tremendous job. I think all of the members should be nothing but extremely grateful to Colin for running the hill in the fashion that he did. It did not come without massive amounts of stress for Colin. For the GM to have run the hill with the very difficult decisions he had to make –running and ending it in a year where we only opened it for less than three months and making all the bills, these kind of efforts and numbers should be commended. Members should be ecstatic. This is not the Board’s role. The Board hired a competent manager and he did a great job and the numbers prove it.”

As for Veldman’s return as Chair for the 2016-17 he was cryptic. “We hope to have an AGM in short order. I think I’ve pulled my weight, my hair has gotten a lot grayer through the process. I’m very proud of where we have taken Searchmont. I think it’s time to look at a changing of the guard if you will. But I’ll let the members at the AGM decide that. I’m happy and proud of what the Searchmont community, staff and GM have been able to accomplish over the last two years.”

Veldman’s final thoughts about the resort are positive. “We’ve never been in a better position to open for the next season.”

Like Mealey, Veldman encourages the local ski community to continue to rally behind Searchmont. “And to press the local politicians in treating the hill like a community asset that deserves to be treated no different than a soccer park, arena or outdoor skating rink. I hope that at some point the hill can present a budget to its members that sees a break-even in the near future. And I hope that the next Chair and Board members joining are prepared to put up with an extreme amount of criticism while trying their best in their personal capacity to try to save this community asset. It truly is possible to not have the ongoing stresses of the last 54 years. I’d like to invite people to come forward with ideas, to come forward with criticisms and if there are any other people that would like to donate their time and-or dollars please come forward. We need all the help we can get.”

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