From hinterland to boomtown

Brian
Brian Jones
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The oil boom that forever changed the look and culture of Calgary - although "culture" is a term that doesn't usually come to mind first to describe that city - happened in half a decade in the 1970s.

In the fall of 1977, a few friends and I carpooled to get to the University of Calgary and, driving north on Crowchild Trail, we had a clear view of the downtown skyline. Occasionally, just for fun, we would count the construction cranes looming in the distance. There were always at least a dozen. The highest count went to 15 or so.

The oil boom that forever changed the look and culture of Calgary - although "culture" is a term that doesn't usually come to mind first to describe that city - happened in half a decade in the 1970s.

In the fall of 1977, a few friends and I carpooled to get to the University of Calgary and, driving north on Crowchild Trail, we had a clear view of the downtown skyline. Occasionally, just for fun, we would count the construction cranes looming in the distance. There were always at least a dozen. The highest count went to 15 or so.

One local wit declared that the civic bird was the crane.

Quick change

The city's nickname - Cowtown - seemed outdated and less relevant upon the completion of office towers with names such as Petro-Canada Centre and Suncor Energy Centre.

In the summer, on days off from my job, I'd cycle out to the foothills on my 10-speed. Going west, it took only 15 minutes to get out of the city. Going south took a bit longer, about 30 minutes. Beyond the last suburb, there were miles of rolling ranchland. The only sound was the clicking of my bike's gears, and herds of horses or cows would stop grazing and look up to watch as I pedalled past.

By about the 1990s, most of that nearby ranchland had become residential areas. The herds of horses and cattle were replaced by mile after mile of new neighbourhoods full of houses with three- and four-car garages.

Calgary's urban sprawl became famous - or infamous - for its speed and voraciousness. Surrounded by so much open space, there seemed to be no limit to the city's oil-fuelled growth.

The current oil boom in St. John's is miniscule in comparison, but many of the same forces are at work.

The ongoing debate about the 15-storey downtown office building proposed by Fortis - which the company has withdrawn, but which many city council members continue to tout - is probably only the beginning of what will be a long battle in St. John's between development and preservation.

In the residential realm, market forces are already bringing big changes. In the St. John's metropolitan area, the average price of a new house has reached about $300,000 - an amount that, just a few years ago, would have seemed outlandish. Some might say this is a reflection of the newfound wealth flowing from the oil boom, but, on the flipside, skyrocketing housing costs create problems for people who don't directly benefit from the boom.

City spreading

In our neighbourhood in Portugal Cove, one mini-subdivision has been completed, and two others are proposed, both of which will carve cul-de-sacs into hillsides. Indian Meal Line, which not so long ago cut through wilderness, is now lined with houses almost the entire way between Portugal Cove and Torbay.

This rapid development is reflective of a regional trend. (Here's a proposed civic slogan: "Paradise - Canada's most inappropriately named town.")

When I've written before about oil issues - mostly regarding royalties, jobs and the distribution of benefits - I've received interesting e-mails and phone calls from people who point out Newfoundland's oilpatch, being offshore, is fundamentally different than Alberta's.

In some ways, that's true. But the similarities are striking nevertheless.

For instance, politically, it is curious to note that Premier Danny Williams is in many ways an old-style Red Tory, just as Alberta premier Peter Lougheed was in the 1970s, before - upon his departure - the prairie PCs evolved into right-wing wackos.

But generally, two broad rules apply to both Alberta and Newfoundland.

First, it is better to have oil than to not have it.

And second, oil will forever change the look of a place.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by e-mail at bjones@thetelegram.com

Organizations: University of Calgary, Petro-Canada Centre, Suncor Energy Centre The Telegram

Geographic location: Calgary, St. John's, Alberta Portugal Cove Newfoundland Torbay Canada

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Recent comments

  • Calvin
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    The housing issue is one thing that needs to be looked into a little more closely. Maybe it is a failing of the Williams government, or town hall, to notice or even care about the trend evolving in the housing market, but either way it has to stop. You have people (myself included) just starting their lives after education, unable to purchase a home becuase of strict rules being enforced regarding who can get a mortgage and who cant. Then you have the price of the average house in St. John's (now $300 000 apparently, a rediculous amount) which restricts potential buyers even more. The only people able to afford to buy a home are thos living well above the average income line. I would venture a guess to say that those people make up a very small percentage of Newfoundlanders. So they buy houses, rent them for a mortgage payment or more, and the rich keep getting richer while the average joe cant get ahead. Some form of rent control needs to be enforced so that everyone can afford housing in St. John's. Students do not get any more than they did 5 years ago in student loans, but rent has risen over 33% in that same period. The average income in Newfoundland has risen about 1.5% a year for the last 5 years, but rent has risen 33%. EI benefits and social assistance benefits have risen by around the same amount. Rent.... 33%...........

  • Politically Incorrect
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    .... and third, our oil supply is finite.

  • Peter
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    Good article Brian. Very pertinent. Great example re: Calgary. Hopefully all those anti-development types will read this & think for a few seconds.

  • Johan Perterson
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    Brian, as you pointed out our oil industry is microscopic when compared to the gigantic oil sands development. While the oilsands is said to last for at least another 100 years, our developments might last 20 years at best. That is why it is so disturbing that we have lost a great project like the Fortis proposal. While we will enjoy this little boom for the next few years it is so very important for future generations to seize every opportunity we can to develop our province, and our city. Newfounland is a rural province, we have less urbanized area than any other part of Canada by land size. within walking distance of the downtown we have a national park...Signal hill, and just a very short 10 minute drive from the downtown we have Cape Speare, I could go on and on with all the beauty we have within minutes of Water Street. Why then can't we have one urban center in this whole province? Why must every part of the province be set aside for those who want things to remain in the past? The fortis proposal would have ment one small 15 story building, not unlike the Scotia bank or TD bank buildings which are nearby. There are no buildings of merit there,other than supposedly blocking someones view, there is no sane reason we could not have gone ahead with this much needed development. We have such a small window here where we can develop our one urban core in the province, unfortuately there are a few who don't want their view obstructed, and so a 75 million dollar project goes down the tubes. We would not have even had one tower crane. In years to come when people walk among the boarded up dilapitated buildings of water street we will think back to that time when we had the chance to develop, but chose not to.

  • CFA
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    No no no, Calvin. Never mind housing. Think of the office space! Fortis could have built and office tower out of nothing and money would have magically sprung from it. Oooh, did I say Sprung??? Hey maybe if we grow some cucumbers...

  • Calvin
    July 01, 2010 - 20:18

    The housing issue is one thing that needs to be looked into a little more closely. Maybe it is a failing of the Williams government, or town hall, to notice or even care about the trend evolving in the housing market, but either way it has to stop. You have people (myself included) just starting their lives after education, unable to purchase a home becuase of strict rules being enforced regarding who can get a mortgage and who cant. Then you have the price of the average house in St. John's (now $300 000 apparently, a rediculous amount) which restricts potential buyers even more. The only people able to afford to buy a home are thos living well above the average income line. I would venture a guess to say that those people make up a very small percentage of Newfoundlanders. So they buy houses, rent them for a mortgage payment or more, and the rich keep getting richer while the average joe cant get ahead. Some form of rent control needs to be enforced so that everyone can afford housing in St. John's. Students do not get any more than they did 5 years ago in student loans, but rent has risen over 33% in that same period. The average income in Newfoundland has risen about 1.5% a year for the last 5 years, but rent has risen 33%. EI benefits and social assistance benefits have risen by around the same amount. Rent.... 33%...........

  • Politically Incorrect
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    .... and third, our oil supply is finite.

  • Peter
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    Good article Brian. Very pertinent. Great example re: Calgary. Hopefully all those anti-development types will read this & think for a few seconds.

  • Johan Perterson
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    Brian, as you pointed out our oil industry is microscopic when compared to the gigantic oil sands development. While the oilsands is said to last for at least another 100 years, our developments might last 20 years at best. That is why it is so disturbing that we have lost a great project like the Fortis proposal. While we will enjoy this little boom for the next few years it is so very important for future generations to seize every opportunity we can to develop our province, and our city. Newfounland is a rural province, we have less urbanized area than any other part of Canada by land size. within walking distance of the downtown we have a national park...Signal hill, and just a very short 10 minute drive from the downtown we have Cape Speare, I could go on and on with all the beauty we have within minutes of Water Street. Why then can't we have one urban center in this whole province? Why must every part of the province be set aside for those who want things to remain in the past? The fortis proposal would have ment one small 15 story building, not unlike the Scotia bank or TD bank buildings which are nearby. There are no buildings of merit there,other than supposedly blocking someones view, there is no sane reason we could not have gone ahead with this much needed development. We have such a small window here where we can develop our one urban core in the province, unfortuately there are a few who don't want their view obstructed, and so a 75 million dollar project goes down the tubes. We would not have even had one tower crane. In years to come when people walk among the boarded up dilapitated buildings of water street we will think back to that time when we had the chance to develop, but chose not to.

  • CFA
    July 01, 2010 - 19:50

    No no no, Calvin. Never mind housing. Think of the office space! Fortis could have built and office tower out of nothing and money would have magically sprung from it. Oooh, did I say Sprung??? Hey maybe if we grow some cucumbers...