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Have we turned the corner? Signs of improvement in Peace Region economy

Busy hotels, bustling highway: after one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory, is Northeast B.C.'s economy on the mend?
Ted Plomske shakes hands with a prospective job applicant at a Calfrac Well Services hiring fair in Dawson Creek Nov. 9. After one of the worst oil and gas downturns in a generation, local businesses are seeing signs of economic improvement.

Whenever Kevin Kurjata wants to get a feel for the state of the local economy, he stops by a late night convenience store and chats with the staff.

“The guys that work the midnight shift, they’ll usually give you hard numbers," said Kurjata, a Dawson Creek realtor. With just a few late-night convenience stores in the city, night shift employees tend to have first-hand knowledge of which crews and companies are working in the oilpatch around Dawson Creek—where much of the work occurs after dark.   

“Who’s buying coffee at four in the morning?" Kurjata joked. "I need to know.”

Like many in Northeast B.C., Kurjata and the clerks he chats with are seeing signs of recovery after the worst oil and gas downturn in a generation.

Full hotel parking lots, declining vacancy rates and busier highways are leading many to believe the region has finally turned the corner.
But while the local economy appears to be improving, the official statistics have yet to catch up.

According to Statistics Canada’s Nov. 4 jobs report, Northeast B.C.’s unemployment rate continues to hover near ten per cent. As far as the CMHC knows, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek continue to have the highest vacancy rates in the province.

But Kathleen Connolly, director of the Dawson Creek and District Chamber of Commerce, sees reason for optimism.

After months of empty highways, Connolly is happy to see traffic jams on her drive to work.

When the economy is slow and the roads are empty, it takes her around 25 minutes to get to town. “I did the drive when it took nearly an hour to get to town in the morning because there was so much traffic on the highway,” she said.

Many of those new drivers are contractors on Spectra Energy pipeline expansion projects in the area. At the same time, drilling companies that laid off staff are rehiring, including Calfrac Well Services, which held a hiring fair in Dawson Creek Nov. 9.

For Sam Mangalji, owner of Inn on the Creek, that means new bookings at the hotel.  

“I haven’t seen a downturn like this since I’ve been in Dawson Creek,” he said. “We’re getting a little bit better (now). The first signs are when the companies started calling to make reservations.”

Things are also improving on the real estate front, Kurjata said.

“For the first half of this year, we were doing around 50 per cent of normal business,” he said. “Since the beginning of July, we’re doing about 70 per cent of normal business.”

While business is still as much as 30 per cent below the five year average, the improvement is heartening.

“To go from 50 to 70 per cent…I’d say that’s very significant,” he said.     

While the signs of recovery are there, it remains to be seen whether the upswing is here to stay.

Growth in the oil and gas sector was believed to be behind a small bump in Canada’s gross domestic product in August, according to a Statistics Canada report released Nov. 1.
Natural prices have improved somewhat in recent months, which will likely drive an increase in drilling activity. However, the National Energy Board doesn’t expect prices to rise above $3 U.S. until 2018.  
The Petroleum Services Association of Canada, meanwhile, expects the number of wells drilled in B.C. to decline again next year, from 320 wells in 2016 to 280 in 2017.

Still, if you had asked Connolly to predict the state of the local economy this winter a few months ago, her answer would have been far more pessimistic.  

“Three months ago, I would have told you it looked very bleak and it was going to be a very quiet winter,” she said. “That is not what I’m hearing now, and that’s not what I’m seeing.