Gone bust: How Estevan is coping with a new economic reality
ESTEVAN, Sask. – The good times weren’t all that long ago in southeast Saskatchewan.
Business was hot in May 2012, when Global National‘s Crystal Goomansingh reported on what caught her eye right away in Estevan: massive job boards that were “absolutely everywhere.”
New jobs and new construction made it the place to be. Jackie Wall, the Estevan Chamber of Commerce executive director called it a “huge, huge boom.”
Until it all ended.
Since oil prices plummeted, the number of active drilling rigs is down 27 per cent from the same time last year.
“It does keep me up at night.” – Dennis Day
It means tougher times for the man who moves them.
“It’s boom or bust, and guess what? It’s bust right now and it might be for some time,” said Dennis Day.
He runs Fast Trucking, which is one of the largest family-owned rig moving companies in western Canada.
“We’ve got about 90 trucks and probably 25 of them are parked right now,” he said. “Just took the plates off until it gets busier.”
In 2015, Day’s business dropped by half, forcing him to lay off about 60 people – roughly 40 per cent of his workers.
“It does keep me up at night,” he said. “I work side-by-side with my men. It does bug me when we don’t have enough to keep everybody working.”
Home sales down, lots of vacancies
When there are fewer trucks on the road and fewer rigs in the field, it means fewer people need places to live.
For nearly a decade, the rental market around Estevan was ‘slim pickens.’
Vacancy rates fell below two per cent, even hitting zero. But by 2014, they spiked as more than 12 per cent of units sat empty. In 2015, the vacancy rate reached nearly 21 per cent.
It’s due in part to a backlog of new builds finally finishing just as the economy began to slow, according to realtor Linda Mack.
New condominiums have popped up in Estevan and the ones that have sold, she says, often went for $50,000 to $60,000 less than hoped. Of the condos that haven’t, many have been up for grabs for two years.
“So if no new ones came on the market and sales stayed at the same pace,” Mack said with a pause. “Oh boy, it would take about 20 months to sell everything.”
It amounts to a daunting task in an environment that’s ideal for the buyer, but Mack says there has been a “levelling off” after home prices dropped for several months.
As for “sold” signs, Mack isn’t seeing nearly as many.
“Compared to two years ago, it’s 27 per cent less.”
Leaving the oilpatch
The ripple effect of the slowdown in oil production can be felt province-wide. If the work isn’t in the southeast, people will go elsewhere – even if it’s not what they had hoped for.
Gurinder Singh is an electronics technician. For two-and-a-half years, he repaired the computers that control so many pieces of equipment in the oilfield.
When production slowed, there was no longer a job available. Now, he’s in Regina driving a taxi – and like many of his former colleagues, hoping for the next opportunity.
“If there’s no job, they’re not going to stick around, right? They’ll move wherever they can get a job,” he said.
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Singh hopes to find work in his field sooner than later, and preferably in Regina.
“I won’t have to go back, I won’t have to wait for the oilfield.”
‘If anyone can pull through, Estevan can’
In the face of trying times and growing unemployment, there also shining lights in Estevan, including support for the Salvation Army.
The need went up 60 per cent over the last year, but the community’s generosity was overwhelming.
Major Heather Harbin didn’t think the shelves would be as full in the food bank over the holidays, but instead, 8,500 pounds of food came in, along with $115,000 in donations.
“They stepped up to the plate, they gave us above and beyond,” Harbin said. “We were expecting, probably less, and we received more.”
That spirit may be why hope springs eternal in southeast Saskatchewan.
A man like Randy Graham, who works for Fast Trucking, won’t abandon the work he’s known for his whole life.
“When I was a little kid, I was pushing trucks around in the sand and these are about as big as it gets,” he said. “I’m an equipment operator … it’s kind of in my blood.”
It may take some time, but Graham believes the wheels of the economy in this region will keep turning and strengthen once again.
Dennis Day has been in the thick of it too (“I’ve worked here since I was a kid.”), which is one reason why he’s going to stay along for the ride.
“My dad started the business in 1957. I’ve got a third generation, my boys are in it,” Day said. “I’ve got a lot of passion in this area.”
It’s that kind of enthusiasm Wall describes as keeping the Energy City going.
“If anyone can pull through this, Estevan can do it.”Follow @mikemckinnon
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