Still growin': Calgary's economy and population may be booming, but the city of itinerants doesn't have much civic life--yet.
Economic booms and busts have defined this southern Alberta city, nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Thanks to the booms in its traditional cycle, it's taken only 112 years for the North West Mounted Police fort at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers--built to suppress the U.S. whisky trade--to grow into a city of a million souls. After every boom, a bust has inevitably followed, leaving new Calgarians scrambling to pay their mortgages until the next big chance. But an economic recession is the farthest thing from the minds of the Tuesday night Ship & Anchor crowd. Finding a pessimist in Calgary is about as easy as finding a Calgarian who was actually born here.
"People come to Calgary to work, to make money," says Mike Williston, a civil engineer originally from New Brunswick, between sips of his Sleeman Cream Ale. Williston has called Calgary home for two years, his previous stops including Sacramento, Ottawa and Winnipeg. He concedes that his new base is a great place for professional opportunities--at 29, he's the project manager for several civil engineering projects throughout Alberta. And he loves the nearby Rocky Mountains. But when it comes to culture or a vibrant nightlife, he complains, beyond the Ship & Anchor and the Beltline district's other scattered pubs, clubs and restaurants, the city sorely lacks in comparison to his previous stops. "This city is sparse, like one large suburb," Williston says, stating the obvious. The city's infrastructure--be it the light rail transit and the road net, chewed up by a dozen major construction projects, or, even more, its human infrastructure of entertainment, cultural, civic and charitable networks--is lagging far behind the boom. And if the bust comes, what shape will Calgary be in?
The boom is easily quantified by reading the city's newspapers or scanning Statistics Canada figures. In the past year, the city has seen 40,000 new jobs created and its unemployment rate drop to 3.1 per cent in April. Since 1995, 7,613 head offices have moved here, a 65 per cent increase. The average house costs 50 per cent more than just last year. Calgary welcomed its millionth citizen over the summer, up 250,000 people over the past decade. Newcomers are bringing around 100 more cars daily onto already-clogged city streets. Yet, lacking workers, fast-food restaurants paying $15 per hour must close their dining rooms to keep their drive-throughs open. And every retail outlet sports a "Help Wanted" sign. So it's safe to say the city is enjoying almost unprecedented economic growth.
Almost unprecedented. Those already living in Calgary when the city hosted the 1988 Winter Olympic Games will remember a boom that didn't last. Thanks to the OPEC cartel playing with the world's oil supply, Calgary was going gangbusters in the 1970s and early 1980s. But in October 1980, the infamous National Energy Program kicked in oil price controls that some estimate cost Alberta's economy $180 billion. Then the global price of oil crashed by 60 per cent in the mid-1980s, and Calgarians woke up to the fact that good times don't always last. A bumper sticker then seen throughout the city begged, "Please, Lord, send another oil boom. I promise I won't piss this one away."
The Lord has sent another boom, thanks to the developing world's thirst for oil and new investment in capital-intensive tar sands production. And it isn't just another get-rich-quick upturn. "This boom is different. In '77, Calgary was a very different place and you would hear wild stories about some fancy bathroom shop opening up to sell gold hot and cold spigots," says Nancy Tousley, art critic for the Calgary Herald. "Almost every day I would hear about a new gallery opening." Not all of those efforts bore fruit, Tousley says, and most of those that did, didn't survive the bust that came five years later.
The big difference between today's boom and that of the seventies is the oilsands, explains Adam Legge, research and information director at Calgary Economic Development. In the eighties, he says, the focus "on the patch" was conventional oil. Today, that's vanishing, and the price has shot to record highs (though not in real money to the peaks of the eighties). This has encouraged investment in Athabasca tar sands projects, all long-term. Legge says as long as crude doesn't dip below $30 a barrel, and it won't, those projects are sustainable. And while natural gas prices are dropping, gas supply and demand are healthy. "So back in the eighties when the price of oil dropped, yeah, it was pretty easy to just stop drilling," he says. "But today, I'd say the energy industry is far more resilient than it was back in the eighties."
Growth of the Canadian economy will slow from 2.9 to 2.6 per cent next year, thanks to a weaker U.S. market, but that will only mildly affect Calgary, says Dale Orr, an economist in Toronto with the forecasting firm Global Insight. "To put things into context in Alberta: yeah, things will cool off, but Alberta will still be the source of strength in the Canadian economy," Orr says. So the chance of the boom busting is slim.
Even though commodities have followed a boom-bust cycle since the Second World War, this time round, Calgary will experience no more than a "correction," explains Bart Melek, a BMO Nesbitt Burns senior economist in Toronto. "I don't think there will be a bust cycle," Melek says. "And the main reason for that is pretty simple: it's China. Unlike previous cycles we have China consuming commodities at a record pace and we still have a significant portion of global growth coming from the developing world."
The boom not stalling anytime soon equals outstanding success for Calgary. "Generally speaking, the boom has assisted Calgary quite well," says Calgary's Mayor Dave Bronconnier, "in terms of transforming us from a centre that maybe isn't as well known internationally--although I always say that Calgary is the smallest international city in the world. And a lot of that has been driven by the oil and gas sector." Case in point, the politician explains, was the Oct. 23 visit to the city by OPEC president and Nigerian oil minister Edmund Daukoru. Yet the mayor concedes the city is having a difficult time keeping pace with the boom. "Whether it's a transportation project or whether it's arts or recreation, they've all been falling behind," he says. "I believe, though, that with all the growth, there hasn't been adequate resources going into the arts and culture component."
Culture isn't the only sector lagging. The boom has been hard on the working poor, warns Del Bannerman, development officer at Calgary's flagship Mustard Seed Street Ministry, serving the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. "The boom's been more difficult for low-income people--rents have been increasing tremendously, so the working poor have really taken a beating," she laments, adding that 900 apartments across the city have recently been transformed into condominiums. "There's a circle of people going around trying to find a place to live." The Seed's longtime donor base is solid, but the city's wealthier newcomers haven't yet networked into its once famed civic volunteer base.
When it comes to overall standard of living, what better indicator than the arts? asks Terry Rock, president and CEO of the Calgary Arts Development Authority. Rock, a Calgarian since 1998, says Calgary's art scene is highly under-appreciated. "Aside from a core group in Calgary that really understands the level of quality and the sheer inventiveness of what's going on ... people have the perception in Calgary and beyond Calgary that this isn't a culturally dynamic place," says Rock. In October, CADA presented a report to a council subcommittee, comparing civic support across the country. Calgary spends $2.56 per person on the fine arts, while much-derided Edmonton spends $3.88, Vancouver $4.01, even rusting Winnipeg $5.20, and Toronto a whopping $6.42. So Rock asked city council--already stretched paying for massive new freeway construction--for an additional half-million dollars per year.
The Calgary opera, the philharmonic and the city's half-dozen museums all have committed and generous supporter bases--for a city three-quarters its size, which it was 10 years ago. (See our story on Winnipeg theatre, page 45.) Calgary opera membership was flat over the decade, and director Bob McPhee has described the city as "slipping behind." Yet culture journalist Tousley says that while the art scene is wet behind the ears, it has grown tremendously since she arrived in 1977. The lean years of the eighties formed the artists and promoters into the resilient community they are today, she argues. "Calgary has a number of (visual) artists who show all over the country and outside of Canada. It's a vibrant and interesting community with a group of artists who've really had to stick it through, thick and thin. And you know, what doesn't kill you only makes you strong. So these guys are very strong," she laughs.
If attendance and support of the cultural scene don't match the city's population growth, some say it's because the city is so young, making comparisons to the scenes in other cities unfair. "Montreal calls itself a cultural metropolis," says CADA's Rock. "We're not calling ourselves a cultural metropolis. What we are is a young, vibrant community."
Yet "community" may be precisely what's lacking in a city where a quarter of the population has lived here fewer than ten years. People came here to work; their social relations are almost all work-based. And being young and rootless means people are too busy to join the broader social network. "I'll give you an example of what rootlessness looks like. My next-door neighbours are renovating, and the people doing their tile are living in a trailer in their driveway," says lawyer Donna Kennedy-Glans of Integrity Bridges, a business ethics consultant.
Part of rootlessness lies in the varied motives of people moving here. "From a spiritual point of view, there's a fine line between people moving here for improvement, or making a better life for their family, and ... moving here solely for greed," says Pastor Steve Osmond of Calgary's First Assembly Church. "That's no reason to uproot your family, your kids or whatever, just to make a quick buck." Former Ontarian Chris Prinz, a chef at the haute restaurant Eight, beside the Ship & Anchor, complains first that the rent increases have been sharp, his biggest indicator for the change. Yet his wages are rising just as fast. "It's shocking; five years ago, there were too many cooks ... it was hard finding a good job," he says during a cigarette break. "Now, there aren't nearly enough cooks." Yet, while his rent and wages have grown, in his eyes, the youthful city's social or cultural opportunities still lack, even compared to his native suburban Burlington.
Scottish emigre Chris O'Neill first spent a year in Edmonton, where it was "a little too flat for my Scottish blood," and then moved here last year. On the weekends, Calgary tends to empty into the Rockies, and those grand landscapes suit his passion for photography. Yet the blandness of life in a new suburban development takes getting used to. "It's been a mixed bag; for one, I'm used to a more mature city, with more of a mixture of ages," he says. Only the city's core, 20 miles away, could be classified as mature, barely--and he rarely goes there, says the University of Calgary researcher, because his work has been too busy.
In the end, the city's growing pains are just that--the pains of growth, says lawyer Kennedy-Glans. "I think anytime you make a transition, and you talk to anybody who relocates, it takes 18 months to two years, whether you're moving across Canada or across the world," she says. At least that long. And the folks who move here might have to wait even that long just to find a house, let alone set down roots and build a grander society.
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|Title Annotation:||CITY LIFE|
|Date:||Nov 20, 2006|
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