Thursday October 30, 2014




Celebrating a decade of growth

As Weyburn heads into a new century, the city is celebrating unprecedented growth and expansion in the local economy, much of it over the past decade in oil, agriculture and retail sectors
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Weyburn Centennial celebrations are over. And what a party it was. Visitors came “home” to a city transformed by unprecedented growth with new buildings and expansions in the business sector, whole new residential neighbourhoods that were prairie grass only seven years ago, and many new faces from within and outside of Canada.

Only ten years ago the Sims Avenue extensiondid not exist. You know, the street that now houses Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire, Tim Horton’s and three shiny new hotels.

The Evanston Park industrial area south of the city was barely broken dirt and is now a centre for oilfield, transport and mechanic services. West of town on Highway 13 another commercial subdivision which started with Southern Industrial and Truck is quickly filling with new businesses and huge new agricultural equipment dealerships.

In 2013 alone there were 358 business licenses issued, an increase of 6.5 per cent from 2012. Twenty four commerical/industrial building permits were issued at a value of $14 million. The Chamber of Commerce estimates over $200 million in capital projects are planned for Weyburn over the next 15 years.
“The last 10 years was pretty much the biggest growth period in the history of Weyburn,” said Chamber manager Jeff Richards.

“Businesses choose Weyburn because they want to pick a community that’s good for their families. We win that decision hands down. We have a beautiful city and we have everything you need here without the problems of the big city.”

But as he says, “nobody moves anywhere simply because it’s nice.

The opportunity for jobs and businesses is here as well. In 2003 there were 30 to 40 job listings, now there are 300 to 400.”

While growth might be fueled by oil, agriculture and manufacturing, Weyburn is also a centre for regional health and school offices. Jobs in all sectors are bringing in the kind of wages that attract workers.

In 2006 with a population of 9,435 the average household income in Weyburn was roughly $64,000. By 2011 the city grew by 1,000 people and that average income had increased by 25 per cent to almost $86,000, the third highest in Saskatchewan. And the median age was forty. So much for the sleepy retirement city of days gone by.

Perhaps these numbers reflect what Richards sees “a healthier attitude toward growth” in the city. There was an initial, and perhaps warranted, apprehension in the early days about shortages of labour, housing, doctors and money for infrastructure. But the city has opened up housing projects to outside developers and hired doctors through a coordinated recruitment initiative. And growth and the prosperity it brings have contributed to projects like the Triple C Centre and fundraising efforts around a new hospital.

Citizens, city planners, politicians and businesses believe Weyburn has come out the other end of some tough decisions stronger, more organized and with a solid understanding of what it wants to be into the future. And that’s pretty much the same, only better.

“The community might change but our core values are still intact,” said Mayor Debra Button. “We have a good quality of life here and Weyburn is clean and safe.”

The city has developed strategies to accommodate growth while maintaining this vision.A housing advisory committee now reports to council and has proven invaluable to the five developers now working on projects. Incremental spending on infrastructure has kept costs down, Button says, and a new District Planning Commission has been formed.

Through the DPC, the city and RM work together to ensure that “growth is appropriate and all over,” Button says. “The sun is shining on the southeast corner and we want to send a clear message to outside developers and businesses that we’re working together.” The DPC works on agreements around water supplies through the Weyburn Utility Board, sewage equipment, landfill needs, fire trucks and policing and have developed frameworks around annexation of land and zoning.

Carmen Sterling has been Reeve of the Weyburn RM since 2004.

“In the past we were babysitting roads,” she said. “Council has had a change in mentality and focus. We are far less about maintenance and roads and more about supporting growth.”

No wonder. Today they are zoning for commercial and residential subdivisions on land that skirts the city and beyond. In fact the RM has three industrial subdivisions that didn’t exist 10 years ago and in recent meetings looked at proposals for 300 acreage/multi-parcel lots. And RM councillors are learning about changes to road standards, CO2 injection, and fracing in order to better respond to ratepayer concerns and questions.

The RM provides a tax incentive on industrial lots, and Sterling points to Evanston park as an example of how that pays off. “They bought lots and built and now there are taxable businesses out there.”

“The key for us is to see business establish locations and to build buildings because that’s tougher to walk away from than rented spaces,” she says. “The challenge for council is to balance the supply and demand (of residential and commercial lots) and to make sure development is appropriate.”

Indeed, that is the challenge for all levels of government.

Mayor Button sees housing within the city as the “pinch point” to keeping and attracting the labour required for all the new activity in Weyburn. Today, housing projects dot the skyline from the Riverwood development at the old Souris Valley grounds, to the Creeks on the east end of town.

“We have five larger developments and every one of them has a multi-family component at about 20 to 40 per cent of density,” said city planner, Martino Verhaeghe. The Creeks project alone is 160 acres with plans for 850 dwellings, 400 of those as multi-family units, and at least a third of this year’s total construction is in multi-family units, he said.

Ten years ago the average value of housing starts in the city was $10 to $15 million. In 2010 that had jumped to $41 million. In 2013 there were 89 residential housing starts valued at $25 million.

At John Hulbert Construction (JHC), John and Tanya have seen a lot of change since they took over his father’s contracting business in 2001. Back then they might have had two builds a year, with smaller houses worth $60,000. Now many homes are worth a half million dollars. And that’s just the house.

“Lot values have skyrocketed so it’s a huge investment,” Hulbert said. “Ten years ago lots were $28,000. Today they are $100,000 or more.”

Hulbert does a mix of commercial and residential construction depending on demand. Business is not as aggressive as four or five years ago, he says, but it’s still busy. A slowdown might not be a bad thing. “In a hot market, sometimes they’re not asking how much it costs, but when it can get done,” he says.

While the housing market has cooled a little, Verhaeghe says it’s still viable because the kind of jobs being created in the area are well compensated. A population with money attracts more services, retail and restaurant business. According to a report from the Canadian Homebuilders Association, the population of the city alone could reach 22,000 by 2025.

It seems a stretch, but considering the diversity of the local economy and the fact it creates stable jobs in an unstable national and world economy, maybe it isn’t so far a reach.

People and business are coming. Verna O’Neill sees them every day in her role as executive director of Sunrise Community Futures (CF). The organization provides loans, assistance and support for small business startup and expansion in everything from retail to trades to personal service.

The biggest change O’Neill has seen is the need to partner with other CF’s in the province, banks or credit unions to provide the kinds of funds required for the projects being presented.“New entrepreneurs are coming to us looking at starting a business in oilfield services where the startup figures are high. We see lots of people in the trades who see an opportunity to turn their skills into a small business. But they need the startup capital to get going,” she said.

Interest is coming from both local people and newcomers to the region or to Canada who often have spouses with skills or interests of their own. “They bring a whole new set of eyes to the market and they see opportunities we may not,” O’Neill said. “We see newcomers in the area with great ideas that need to connect with capital.”

They are attracted by business opportunities and good jobs, but what makes them “stick” are the less tangible things like opportunity to become involved in the community, to pursue their interests, to find housing and good schools and doctors, she said.

Whether coming to Weyburn for jobs or to start a business, there are many new faces and cultures in our city.

“The most significant change is in how the community is welcoming all those new faces,” said Mayor Button. “People are generally really open to new cultures and to exposing themselves to what the newcomers bring. Their culture may be very different, but we are all very much the same … by making people feel welcome, it will be much easier to attract and retain them in the community.”
 
Oil and gas:
Only 10 years ago the Bakken play was just starting to be tapped and Saskatchewan was producing about 4,000 barrels of oil per day. In 2012 that number was 470,000 barrels per day. While new production might have slowed a little, enhanced recovery through CO2 injection, water flooding, fracing and horizontal drilling technologies will keep the field viable for the long term.

Alongside the big players, Cenovus, Crescent Point and the like, new oil companies are still deciding to set up shop in Weyburn.

While not exactly new to the area, Enerplus brought its Saskatchewan head office to Weyburn in 2011. Based out of Calgary, the company has 160 wells in the area, 70 of those injection based.

Area foreman, Chuck Hignett says they moved to Weyburn because with much of their activity west of town and an employee base of 15 workers out of Weyburn and Radville, it made sense geographically and all the services the company needs can be found in Weyburn.

“The economics are good here,” Hignett says. “We’ve had one or two rigs busy for the past three or four years and the company is spending a good chunk of change for capital projects in the area.”

But there’s more to it than economic.

“I heard a lot of good things about Weyburn,” he says.

“Opportunity for sports, a good community feel, it’s laid back and friendly.”

Agriculture:

While much of the buzz has been about oil, agriculture has seen almost as much change and prosperity in recent years. Weyburn is one of the largest grain gathering points in the country. And growing all that food on the farm creates opportunities for business in the city.

Drew Watson knows it. Ten years ago, Watson Distributors became part of South Country Equipment, which includes seven other John Deere dealerships in southern Saskatchewan.

“We are still a family business even though our name is not on the front,” says Watson, now HR manager and partner. “Our customer base is larger in the size and complexity of their farms. As a bigger organization we can provide services we couldn’t dream of doing without the regional setup.”

For example, a new “integrated solutions” department, complete with in-house agrologist, works to match the current science on farming with what technology in today’s machines can do. It’s pretty remarkable stuff. For instance, a problem with a combine can be detected from a computer at the dealership and a technician will show up in the field before the farmer even knows there’s something wrong.

“It’s a value-added service that’s demanded by the technology and the cost of the equipment. Expectations are ramped up and so the services need to ramp up with it,” Watson said.

As well, the larger company can move people around to where they are most needed, Watson said. “Our ability to do that is good for the community because we can maintain jobs at our location through a tough time.”

There are about 21 employees at the Weyburn location and Watson expects that to more than double with the completion in 2014 of a huge new building located just west of town. “It’s an investment in infrastructure that is designed for expansion and that bodes well for at least the next five years,” Watson said.

He believes there’s a certain synergy between the oil and agriculture sectors, reflected in a growing labour pool that is able to remain in the area because of the mix of jobs available.

Retail:

It’s also reflected in the mix of retail, food and petroleum sales at the Weyburn Co-op. The organization’s annual business grew from $50 million to $80 million in just seven years, with most of that growth in the petroleum division, says manager Don Kraft. Today the Suds City location brings in more than the food store. And the Co-op cardlock site alone brings in $20 million.

Employee numbers are up as the company is double-shifting to provide longer hours of service. Compensation is also up; driver wages have more than doubled in 10 years and so have the number of fuel trucks. New technologies include pay at the pump, U-scan at the food store, tracking systems and GPS in trucks, and smart phone apps for customers.

Money for technology is spent with customer service in mind, but Kraft believes it will require exceptional service to keep people shopping locally into the future. It’s a perennial problem for retailers in such close proximity to Regina. “It’ll all be about the personal service side of business,” Kraft said.

The last word goes to Verna O’Neill back at Sunrise Community Futures.

“Attitudes are positive all over Saskatchewan,” O’Neill said. “People have seen growth and opportunity and don’t feel they are taking as much risk in starting a business because we now have a long economic track record of performing. Their attitude is based in fact and reality now, and not only hope.”

And so it goes. A new century for the City of Weyburn, and we’re going into it with a whole new attitude.

*Stats on housing, income, population and business activity taken from the 2013 SEREDA annual report much of which is an analysis of Stats Canada data; and from the City of Weburn Planning Department, 2013 annual report.


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