COVER

HOW A COW TOWN GREW UP

TOM FENNELL February 15 1988
COVER

HOW A COW TOWN GREW UP

TOM FENNELL February 15 1988

HOW A COW TOWN GREW UP

COVER

In the early 1980s, when their city’s economy was booming, Calgarians jokingly adopted the “sky crane” as their official bird. The construction cranes soared from dozens of building sites in the city during the energy boom that ended when oil prices nose-dived in 1983. Then the sky cranes disappeared, leaving behind the rusting steel skeletons of half-finished buildings. But now a new Calgary is emerging. And the xv Olympic Winter Games opening this week symbolize the city’s turnaround. Says Douglas Gillmor, a professor of architecture at the University of Calgary: “I think we have turned the corner. We are seeing a sense of community starting to grow.”

But in the early 1980s it was the abandoned building that was the symbol of a new and troubled era in the city’s history. Thousands of people were laid off, the city’s population dropped for the first time in years, and hundreds of people walked away from houses they could no longer afford. Although it is recovering from those bleak days, the effects of recession continue to haunt the city: new restaurants open and close with the speed of revolving doors, and taxi drivers still reminisce about the money they once commanded as highly paid tradesmen. Even with the enormous exodus of people from the city to other parts of Canada, Calgary’s unemployment rate is still 10 per cent.

Complete: But the city’s population of 640,450 has stabilized. As well, a sense of neighborhood is growing in the instant suburbs that sprang up from the prairie almost overnight in the late 1970s, and many of the expensive municipal projects that were started during the boom are now complete.

The economic storms that have buffeted the city’s corporate towers since 1981 have also changed the energy sector, the city’s lifeblood. Fewer of the small but robust independent oil explorers are around now, and the firms that remain are usually larger and more conservative. More often than not, says former Dome Petroleum Ltd. president William Richards, the survivors are now governed by cautious managers, rather than the go-for-broke wildcatters who once dominated the industry. Says Robert Lamond, president of Czar Resources Ltd., an aggressive natural gas

exporter: “Those exciting days when you could bend over and pick up a million dollars off the sidewalk are gone.” But even though the city is quieter now, Lamond says, it still has a gambler’s edge to it, sharpened by the belief that a small investment can still bring in a billion-dollar oil gusher.

Calgarians like to say that their anticipation of future riches is why writers and poets long ago began calling the Prairies “next-year country.” That spirit of adventure lives each July in the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, with

its frontier images of cowboys, horses and lariats. The energy sector has added to that frontier myth, with its own images of oil-soaked drilling crews and flaring oil wells.

But stereotypical images of cowboys and roughnecks clash with the reality of modern Calgary, whose populace, according to the Calgary Economic Development Authority, is the most highly educated in the country, with 49 per cent having post-secondary education.

The city was founded in 1875 by an uneasy alliance of rough-and-ready American cowboys and British gentry. And the local native population, the Sarcee Indians, were more intrigued than offended by the new settlers. The British settlers brought old-country traditions—such as cricket and polo clubs—with them and even held mounted hunts with English-bred hounds. American cowboys came north to work

on the ranches owned by the British and many stayed on. With them came the roping and riding skills of the open range and a boisterous spirit that the Stampede rekindles annually.

Cowboys: A second American invasion hit the area in the late 1920s when oil was discovered in the Turner Valley, just south of the city, and Calgary’s economy boomed for a brief time. The third wave of Americans flooded into Calgary after Imperial Oil Ltd. (Canada) discovered oil near Leduc, just south of Edmonton, on Feb. 22,1947, thereby launching the mod-

ern Alberta petroleum industry. But at the time, instead of cowboys and roughnecks, American geologists, engineers and businessmen came north and, according to local historian Jack Peach, the globe-trotting oilmen soon gave the city a more cosmopolitan flavor.

Centre: Since then, successive waves of American immigration have left Calgary with an entrepreneurial spirit that, at the height of the oil boom in 1980, placed the city at the centre of a national political storm. The major players in the oil industry wanted Ottawa to stay out of the industry, but Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government responded with the dramatically interventionist National Energy Program. Although recession and the lower crude oil prices have cooled the energy debate, Calgary is still a stronghold of conservatism.

But to find the real sense of his community, Calgary novelist W. O. Mitchell

suggests looking beyond the oil towers and what he calls the city’s “off-theshelf” frontier image. If they do, Olympic visitors will find a number of facts that do not readily square with tall white Stetsons and bucking broncos. According to the Calgary Economic Development Authority, Calgary boasts the highest concentration of employees in science, engineering and mathematics44 per 1,000 population compared with a national average of 22 per 1,000. The University of Calgary houses one of only two large and sophisticated supercomputers available to the private sector in Canada, and the city rates behind only Toronto and Montreal in the number of corporate head offices.

Modern Calgary is ethnically mixed, with an Asian population of some 50,000 people. A thriving Chinatown, built by the descendants of laborers who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway and with a population of about 2,500, is still welcoming the latest generation of Asian immigrants. And there are just as many colorful turbans in the urban crush as there are Stetsons. Says Wing Wong, an executive director with the Calgary Chinatown Development Foundation: “The cowboy image does not mean much to us. Our children go to schools in the suburbs and hope to get good jobs in the private sector.”

Core: Calgary’s glass-sheathed city core also explodes the myth of frontier outpost. Most of it was built since 1970, and borrows heavily from the leading international building designs of the time. The city core tends to reflect images of itself from the thousands of mirror panels that line it. And when the setting sun hits it from the right angle, “the core takes on a magical quality,” says the University of Calgary’s Gillmor.

In part to combat the icy blasts, an eight-kilometre network of elevated glass-enclosed bridges, known as Pluslös—suspended 15 feet above the city’s sidewalks—link Calgary’s tallest buildings. And in contrast to the pedestrian tunnels running beneath most Canadian cities, the Plus-15s give office workers a view of the wide prairie sky and mountains to the west.

Calgary also rescued prime rivervalley land from developers in the overheated land boom. Today, a series of winding paths follows the Bow and Elbow rivers, from Fish Creek in the south and Bowness Park in the west to the city core. The Bow River, which tumbles dramatically down from its glacial headwaters above Banff, is a major source of recreation. On summer weekends hundreds of city residents raft down the Bow into the centre of the city.

Calgary is also home base for a flam-

boyant collection of oil millionaires. A select few, declaring their intention to return some of their wealth to the city that made them so rich, have vaulted their community onto the North American and world stages through the sheer weight of their wallets.

In 1980 a group of wealthy Calgarians headed by the Seaman brothers, founders of Bow Valley Industries Ltd., a multinational oil exploration and development firm, purchased the Altlanta Flames of the National Hockey League. The Flames set up shop in the venerable Calgary Corral, a cramped shrine to Calgary hockey heroes of bygone eras, before moving across the parking lot to the Olympic Saddledome, which seats 20,000 spectators.

Cup: The Flames, perhaps more than even the 1988 Winter Olympics, have helped buoy Calgarians through the recession.

In the spring of 1986, in the midst of crashing oil prices and painful layoffs, the Flames upset the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in the early rounds of the NHL playoffs. On their return to Calgary, thousands of fans, most sporting Flames sweaters and hats, turned the city’s airport into a sea of flaming red.

Spruce Meadows, located just south of the city, is another multimillionaire’s gift to the city. In 1976 Margaret Southern, the wife of Ronald Southern, deputy chairman of prefab-trailer maker ATCO Corp., opened a small equestrian facility for Calgary-area

horse lovers to show and train their horses. Now, international equestrian officials rate the annual Spruce Meadows Masters, which attracts 100,000 fans and the world’s best riders each

year, the top equestrian event in North America.

For the not-so-moneyed Calgarians, who lived through nearly 20 years of continuous growth, the yearning for a return to the money-drenched boom days is almost tangible. Every increase

in oil prices sparks a round of rumors about the good times to come. Former Dome president Richards says that there is no doubt that the days of rapidly rising oil prices will return. But in the short term, he said, crude prices will remain stalled between $15 and $20 a barrel. But once surplus oil supplies around the world are reduced, he predicts that prices will jump again.

Control: Recent dramatic corporate moves in Calgary tend to support Richards’s bullish view. In December, 1986, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing purchased almost 50 per cent of Husky Oil Ltd. And last week Amoco Canada Petroleum Co. Ltd. moved closer to completing its purchase of Dome Petroleum. Both Husky and Dome control huge oil and gas reserves in the province.

But many Calgarians believe that the 1988 Winter Olympics may change the city more than even another energy boom would. Said Art Smith, Calgary businessman and former cochairman of the city’s economic z development authority: “People s will come to know us as a metz ropolitan, sophisticated city 9 and give us a new heritage to build on.” Indeed, with sky cranes now poised over three sites—a twin-office-tower banking centre, Amoco’s new tower and Canterra Energy Ltd.’s new headquarters—the city’s future appears to be under construction.

-TOM FENNELL in Calgary