Russ Beerling looks on as Sue Kenny fields a question from delegates at the 2015 Northwest Growth Conference on Friday.

Russ Beerling looks on as Sue Kenny fields a question from delegates at the 2015 Northwest Growth Conference on Friday.

Economic growing pains

Dawson Creek, Fort St. John provide a look into boomtown issues

Economic growth can be a very positive thing for any community, but it is not without its challenges.

Perhaps no two municipalities know this better than Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, which have seen a boom unlike any other in the province in the past decade.

As part of the Northwest Growth Conference on March 6, two business professionals – Community Futures Peace Liard, executive director Sue Kenny of Dawson Creek and CCT Controls marketing manager Russ Beerling of Fort St. John  – provided an outline of what residents of the North Coast can expect should liquefied natural gas proceed.

In the house

Both Fort St. John and Dawson Creek saw an influx of new housing and issues related to rental properties, something Kenny saw firsthand as a member of Dawson Creek city council.

“There were complexes that housed 200 families, but investors come in and they are business people. They bought up these complexes and renovated them into condos, got it into strata and the rents went up. Our core community, the ones that are stable and not going anywhere and feeding the economy, we’re losing them because they had to move. It was a problem that wasn’t identified,” she told attendees.

“We didn’t expect those people to be displaced. We just thought they were upgrading.”

Part of the problem, said the former councillor, is out of town investors looking to make as much money as they can from the economic boom.

“You get a lot of investors coming into your community and we had a lot of housing investors coming in. They were actually going to Vancouver and marketing Dawson Creek in Vancouver and they would bring bus loads of potential investors into the community,” she said, adding up to 100 houses were built in Dawson Creek each year she was on council.

“They might have had $100,000 or $200,000 to invest in a duplex. But what the developers were doing was build a duplex, but put the secondary suite included in the bylaw and took total advantage of that to  create a fourplex or a sixplex because there are different levels of a duplex. They would use all three levels setup like a house. You would have this developer show you this duplex that was nicely landscaped and beautiful and they became sixplexes with the grass becoming paved for all the cars that needed to be parked … companies would buy these duplexes and run their crews through them, so you could have three crews in these houses.”

And while some may point to concerns around worker accommodations, such as the one proposed behind the trailer court, Kenny said those are very viable alternatives.

“There is not a lot wrong with camps. A lot of communities look at it as a dirty word, but from my perspective I would definitely go the camp way because, like in Kitimat, with houses what do you have when people leave?” she questioned.

Service overload

Thousands of people coming into a region on an interim basis can put a lot of stress on infrastructure and support systems that weren’t designed to handle it, an idea that was confirmed through the experience of communities in the Peace Region.

“I was talking to the economic development officer last week and she said we are already short 23 RCMP members for the population and the shadow population. That is huge, if you are waiting for an RCMP officer in town to respond to an accident or a domestic disturbance, you might have to wait a long time because they are attending to business that is not related to taxpayers … the hospital is the same thing. The lineup at the hospital is sometimes two or three hours in the emergency room and it is frustrating as a local taxpayer to know the 10 people ahead of you or two hours and 55 minutes ahead of you are not taxpayers and are not contributing to your hospital,” said Beerling.

“The workers don’t contribute to your tax base because they don’t live in the community, so who is going to pay for the services? The local taxpayer.”

As a former councillor, Kenny said there were some unexpected impacts of a booming population.

“Dawson Creek just had to revamp its whole sewer and water system because the sewer system was getting older and it was getting greater use with all the new housing. We were actually having fountains coming out of toilets, literally, because of the runoff and we didn’t have the capability to get that done,” she said.

“They say it gets busy, but it got so busy in Dawson Creek that you couldn’t even make a left turn anywhere, so we had public works running around and developing four-way stops. It was ridiculous. I used to go home for lunch because it was only a 10-minute drive, so I could have a hot lunch and still have lots of time. Now it is 25 minutes to get home so I pack my lunch and eat at work because it is less stressful.”

The solution to these industry-related issues may well rest with industry, said Beerling.

“You have an opportunity now to put your plans in place and when these industries come through, ask them for the assistance. You can welcome them because you know there is going to be population growth and increased business, but there is also some negatives with that including drugs, alcohol, policing, emergency services and so on,” he said.

“If you have the opportunity to ask industry to contribute to things like water or sewer, now is the time to ask. Don’t invite them to come in without giving you something that ensures you are left with a better city than when they got there.”

Challenges to business

While many businesses in the region are preparing to reap the benefits associated with an influx of workers, Kenny told those in the audience an economic boom isn’t entirely positive news for small-to-medium sized businesses.

“Your existing businesses can really fade into the background and those are the ones that thought a lot of really good things would happen. When we had big service companies come into our community, and I mean huge where they are hiring 200 people, things seemed really good on the outside. Our tax base was growing, which was great, but the smaller businesses weren’t seeing a really big change in their economies,” she said.

“With the workforce, they couldn’t keep people in the shops. We had restaurants that couldn’t keep their doors open, and I’m talking about brand new restaurants that were only able to open during certain hours of the day because they didn’t have people to come in to serve or cook … nobody thought about the workforce drain on those types of businesses – your gas station attendants, your servers, your clerks and your retail sector. All of these people were moving into the natural gas and oil industry and we weren’t having quality people in our smaller businesses to the point where the service was really starting to suffer.”

The answer for many small businesses in the Peace Region is the use of foreign workers who are willing to work the entry-level positions while the long-term residents and youth wait for a high-paying job in the oil and gas industry. Beerling and Kenny said the use of foreign workers in the service industry, a practice people in the region had to fight to keep in place and one that is not permitted in the Northwest, is the only reason some businesses remain viable.

“I was talking to someone in the fast food industry and they said they have the mirror test – when someone comes in they put a mirror under their nose and if it fogs up it means they’re breathing so they’re hired … we have imported a lot of workers, we have a lot of people from the Philippines and elsewhere who are working in our service sector because you just can’t find those people,” said Beerling.

“If we didn’t have foreign workers, a lot of business owners would have had to reduce their hours or shut down entirely,” added Kenney.