Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"Calgary's oil rush rash"


CALGARY -- Welcome to a city that's going boom and Kaboom! at the same time.

Everyone in Canada knows about the boom sweeping Alberta that has Calgary rolling in money. Oil is gold right now, and there's lots fuelling the economy here.

The streets are filled with shoppers dumping loads of cash on big-screen HDTVs and $60,000 pick-up trucks. If you've got it, flaunt it and they certainly are.

There are jobs for everyone. Unemployment is a tiny 3.4% and falling. Ontario's is 6.3%.

It may look perfect, but there's an underlying problem. There aren't enough people to do the day-to-day jobs necessary or enough places for the gold-rushers to live.

Let's start with the jobs. Try to find a taxi in this town. Good luck. Has your car ended up in the ditch in the snowstorm? Abandon it until summer because there aren't enough tow trucks to yank you out. The airport shuttle you're waiting for? Keep waiting. The business shut down at the end of November after its proprietor couldn't find enough people to drive the buses.

Anyone who wants to drive for a living has left town for the big money driving gargantuan gravel trucks in Fort McMurray.

Shop 'till you drop doesn't apply. There aren't enough people to man the stores. Over Christmas, malls actually reduced hours.

Beds in Calgary's hospitals are being closed due to nursing shortages.

Construction workers are in high demand. Need something fixed? Good luck.

EnCana announced plans to build a 59-storey, $1 billion office tower in the heart of the city and everyone wondered who would build it.

Traffic? It stinks. It's a city allergic to public transit, but is finding the cure must come as gridlock strangles the town.

Then there's the homeless here in Boomtown. There are about 3,500 homeless people in Calgary, up 32% in the last two years. There aren't even enough places for the employed to live in some cases. Rents have soared while vacancies plummeted. Shelters are at capacity. The city just took over an abandoned Brick furniture store to house up to 300 people a night. People are picked up downtown, shuttled to the human warehouse, then bused back downtown in the morning.

Unlike Toronto, where it seems like the homeless are on every street corner, Calgary's homeless are grouping together and becoming a menace to citizens walking on paths along the Bow River downtown. I watched this summer as a group of boozy men went after a bicyclist, then told me the path was not a safe place to walk my baby.

Calgary even had to enact a public behaviour bylaw, fining those who spit, brawl, loiter or urinate in public. How civilized.

Most disturbing is while the residents in the city and province are rocking and rolling, and provincial government coffers are overflowing, the schools are crumbling and there aren't enough rinks or community centres for the people who have arrived. And at the same time, the province handed everyone $400 in Ralph Bucks for a job well done -- that is watching the price of oil soar.

Calgary is drowning in the troubles brought on by explosive growth.

And remember, this is an economy built on one industry. It's like a unicyclist balancing an entire province's future on his shoulders.

Just one oil field being put on hold could have a devastating effect. It seems hard to fathom with $10 billion in oil sands projects on the books, but a bust has hit here before.

You might recall the last boom in Alberta, and its devastating pop. "Please God, send us another oil boom, and this time I promise not to piss it all away," the popular bumper stickers read.

Those who lived through the first boom in the '70s and bust in the '80s are playing it a little safer.

As for the gold rushers who have flocked to Alberta, could history be repeating itself or will it just be the fact no one's around to service them that will cripple Calgary this time?

If you're heading for the hills be warned: This isn't the promised land you might have expected.


Leah said...

As for the traffic...I think the thing that ticks me off the most are how stupid people can be driving in Alberta now. Both me and my brother feel there has been an increase in stupidity on the road - especially in winter!

Bean said...

It's so ironic, yet sad.

and in response to Leah's comment - I think most people put on a "stupid" hate when they get behind the wheel... Sad day.