Boom Town

In the face of an unpredictable oil industry, does the experience of Dubai hold lessons for Newfoundland?

After a few months on my own in Dubai, and not a few confusing conversations about visas and other assorted red tape, I’ve finally managed to get M (a friend from St. John’s) over here to join in on this adventure. Having never been here before, he didn’t really know what to expect. So, in order to get him properly up to speed, we’ve spent the past week doing our best impression of the tourists’ swing around the city to see what all those superlatives in the guide book were referencing.

One of our trips included going up to the lookout at the Burj Khalifa to gaze down over this endlessly growing city. Up there on the observation deck you can look through these telescopes that have different options on them. One option is to just look through it as a regular telescope that allows you to see what is there as it is now. You also have the option of seeing the city at night, or as a photo (in the event that it’s too hazy to see anything on the day you’re there), or as it was historically. The “historical” lens was really spectacular in that the city’s neighbourhoods – which are now filled with skyscrapers – were all nothing but sand back in the late 1980s. Looking through that lens made me think about boom-towns and their life-cycles. It also made me think about myself – a Newfoundlander leaving home in search of an oil strike. Such a familiar tune…

Meanwhile, back home…

Even Tim Hortons has appeared on the streets - and skyscrapers - of Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Even Tim Hortons has appeared on the streets – and skyscrapers – of Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Last year, when I was still living in St. John’s, I overheard a conversation in a restaurant. The two patrons at the next table were complaining about the service from the wait-staff.

Patron 1: “This is what happens when a place gets money – people stop caring.”
Patron 2: “That’s because of the oil. You watch, this is the next Fort Mac.”

Is St. John’s becoming a boom-town? There was a somewhat snark-laden article making its rounds online last week about how amazing it is that Newfoundland and Labrador is coming out on top as the province with the highest economic growth for 2013 thanks to oil. I’m not entirely sure why it’s amazing that our economy is growing thanks to offshore oil; however, I am curious about the societal effects of St. John’s becoming a boom-town (if that is even what’s happening) à la Fort McMurray. Given the history and population growth of St. John’s, perhaps that’s not the most accurate comparison.

I don’t think it currently fits the requirements given that much of our economic growth over the past few years has come from many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians going to Alberta, and coming back home to spend their earnings on real estate. Surely there is another word for that particular phenomenon. But never mind all that. Now that we’re ready to get at the black gold, is our province about to become the next hot spot for those in search of the spoils of oil? What will happen to it if we get that sudden influx of people, pushing at an (arguably) already lacking infrastructure and service sector?

Predictions and propositions

I live in a boom-town now, but I think it might be on the verge of something else at this stage. Yes, it fits the bill of having had a sudden influx of people due to sudden prosperity. But it also suffered a bust back in 2009, and despite a lot of nay-saying, did not go under. Well, maybe it went under for a moment or two but it certainly didn’t stay under. Is that what makes the difference between a boom-town and a global city? Other major cities around the world (i.e. New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.) surely experienced their share of ups and downs, or booms and busts, but nothing really drove the nail in the coffin. I wonder if Dubai will continue to grow after the oil runs out? I don’t know what to think. When I was looking through that telescope at the visuals from 1985, it seemed entirely possible that in 30 years after all the oil is gone this place will suffer the cruel fate of Detroit. But then again maybe not. I recently read an article about some of the up and coming projects that have been approved for the city, and they are fascinating. Business continues to boom, and maybe when the oil does run out it won’t matter by that point. I do think I’ll look back on this place when I’m old and gray and think how wacky it all was.

What does it take?

Imagine the possibilities for a small city like St. John’s. Will it become the next draw for migration in Canada? That sounds like a pretty good offer, doesn’t it? Go live in a new up-and-coming town or city that has plenty of work and all of your financial woes will be assuaged. But it’s also the unfortunate double edged sword of the boom-town. Oil (or coal or gold, depending on which era you’re thinking about) is discovered and everyone comes running to make their fortune. The municipal leaders hope to turn an industry with a due date into something that will sustain growth. I wonder how city leaders strategize these types of things. Typically, boom-towns creak under the weight of a rapidly increasing population, demanding changes to infrastructure and services. But what about the less tangible demands? Certainly there are social factors both affected and caused by the sudden growth of a city. After the people have food and shelter, they will also need healthcare and schools for the kiddies. And then after all that, they will still need something to fill up the hours when they are not at work.

Does the experience of Dubai hold lessons for St. John's and Newfoundland? Photo by Zach Bonnell.
Does the experience of Dubai hold lessons for St. John’s and Newfoundland? Photo by Zach Bonnell.

That is a fair challenge for any town – making it somewhere people want to set down roots, or making it a place where people don’t go crazy from boredom. People who are flocking to a geographical space that only has the infrastructure and services to support a finite (and much smaller) population demand a quick increase in housing, roads, etc. The struggle to keep physical growth ahead of population growth can sometimes have disastrous results for those who have come for their piece of the pie. Some such cities which have had well-documented struggles over these issues include places like Shenzhen in China.

Maybe not all new boom-towns want to be the next New York. Maybe some municipal leaders are content to have a town spring up overnight with the discovery of something profitable, to turn that into profit, and then move on when it’s all gone. The ethics and arguments for and against tearing the guts out of the earth for monetary profit could not possibly fit into the remaining paragraphs of this article, so I’ll leave it for you to conclude at the pub tonight. If you search for ghost towns online, you’ll find plenty of examples of places that went bust after the diamonds ran out. Some towns are just left as is, sand filling in the abandoned schools and homes. Gazing out over the glittering buildings that look like a Sim City game come to life, the future appears both dystopian and idyllic. It all depends on which lens you’re looking through.

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