The Yukon dream
Back in the days of ‘98, the Yukon dream was to strike pay dirt so rich that you could pay a dance hall girl her weight in gold to marry you. Around every campfire, people schemed big schemes. Sternwheelers. Cattle drives. Stagecoaches. Railroads to the Klondike from Skagway, Haines or Telegraph Creek. Dredges the size of ocean liners.
There are still a few Yukoners out in the bush with big schemes. And it’s nice a few of them have struck it rich lately. But judging from what you see around Whitehorse these days, it seems like there’s a new kind of Yukon dream: commercial real estate.
A condo development or office space doesn’t have the same legendary cachet as finding a bag of gold as heavy as a dance hall girl (or boy ... this is the 21st century after all). Ahh, but the yield! And the capital gains! Not to mention the fact that instead of working 16 hours a day for seven days a week covered in bugs and diesel, you can just sit out at the cabin knowing that rental payments are filling up your bank account.
You don’t have to sit in the tavern, drinking Old Style beer and listening to oldtimers tell tall tales about giant nuggets, finicky heavy-equipment engines and what to do with all the weird sabre-tooth tiger skeletons your crew dug up. Instead, you can sip Pinot Grigio and discuss the finer points of condo branding, strata corporations and property taxes.
Just think of how much money we’re talking about. Say you bought some run-down Class C office space 20 years ago when prices were depressed and there were less than 5,000 government workers in the Yukon. Then you got some minor government department to pay your mortgage for 20 years. Now you’re mortgage free.
And not only that, a whopping 2,500 more government officials now need cubicles! And relatively few of these haven’t been shoe-horned into existing divisions. There has been a boom in official agencies, boards and commissions. Plus First Nations need office space at home and in Whitehorse. Plus there has been a surge in the delightfully named quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations), plus government funded non-government organizations.
At some point you probably had to tack a quick addition onto your 1992 building to fit in a new assistant deputy minister or two.
So rents have gone up, your mortgage is paid off, and your main problem is figuring out what to do with your cash.
At the risk of dating myself, I remember the opening of the YTG Pan-Galactic HQ building in 1976. We marvelled at its sleek metal exterior, stylish 1970s lines and enormous size. It even had elevators that went to more than two floors! I was told that it was supposed to house the entire Yukon public service.
Now it can’t even hold a couple of departments. The library has been sent down the river to the Kwanlin Dun Centre. This kind of deal is a thing of beauty for a landlord, with a flagship public building and a long-term lease. Obscure divisions of forgettable departments can easily dump you when the lease is up, but not a purpose-built library client. Meanwhile, back at the old building, I hear that cabinet secretariat staff will be moving in. I wonder who gets the big stone fireplace in their office, and if people will keep wandering in to use the Internet and the toilets.
If you look at old photos of Whitehorse, there aren’t actually that many government buildings. The police had a big compound and there were scatterings of smaller buildings like the Telegraph Office, the various incarnations of the Liquor Store and so on. Now, the list of buildings with lots of government offices is a long one: Nuvo, the old Taku building, upstairs at Hougen’s, the old T&D’s building at First and Main, the old Country Store building, Closeleigh Manor, the Tourism building on Lambert Street, plus the buildings for the Association franco-yukonnaise, Council of Yukon First Nations, Champagne-Aishihik, and so on.
But what to do with the cash you’ve built up? Build more office space? Or sell out?
On the one hand, if the number of government workers keeps growing at the pace it has over the last 20 years, Whitehorse will need more than 3,000 new cubicles by 2032.
On the other, will our transfer payments keep growing to support it? Also, construction costs have risen fast. Even Class C office space is shockingly expensive to build. What if the Yukon government starts following the trends of more cost-conscious governments Outside, such as standardizing and reducing cubicle sizes or filling up empty lobbies and reception areas? Stealing an idea from the tiny sinks and toilets in Vancouver mini-condos, some offices are giving people smaller desks and replacing filing cabinets with cloud storage. There are even wilder ideas like tele-commuting and hot-desking.
Alas, I fear people thinking now about getting rich off Whitehorse office space may be in the same position as stampeders who didn’t get to Dawson until mid-1898: surrounded by rich people but not likely to find much gold themselves.
There are several new buildings going up and I wonder how they will fare. The new building with the curved roof by Kishwoot Island is a spectacular bit of architecture, but is less beautiful as a business. I hear they’ve even been forced to accept private-sector tenants.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the
Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.