High Level businesses stay positive through oil and gas slump

In past years, it was tough to find parking on either side of the highway that runs through High Level. The trucks lined up there were once an indicator of the activity in the area, about 700 kilometres north of Edmonton. But with a big drop in oil and gas drilling in the region, now you can pick your spot.

More diversified economy helping some through hard times

Dave Peters, vice-president of Caliber Energy Systems. (CBC)

In the past few years it was tough to find parking on either side of the highway that runs through the town of High Level.

The trucks that once lined up there were once an indicator of the activity happening in the area, about 700 kilometres north of Edmonton.

But with a big drop in oil and gas drilling in the region, today you can pick your spot.

"There's very little drilling happening here and the money isn't being spent this year," said Dave Peters, vice-president of Caliber Energy Systems. "Everybody has pinched back." 

Caliber is an oilfield service company that has been renting tools for the oil and gas sector since 2006.

Equipment gathering snow in the Caliber yard. (Trevor Wilson, CBC)

But this year, a lot of that rental equipment is sitting in the yard is covered with snow.   

"Normally, there wouldn't be any snow on any of the equipment, for starters, and the yard would be pounded down with tracks," Peters said. "It's definitely a lot quieter than normal."

He has seen ups and downs before, and remains confident things will swing back. After seeing declines for the past 18 months, he just hopes that happens quickly.

There is still work in town, and Peters is happy to see that flights into High Level remain busy, especially on Mondays and Fridays.

People are still renting vehicles when they arrive in town. But few are buying them, so vehicle sales at the local Ford dealership are taking a big hit.

Trucks for sale at True North Ford.

"I think people are a little more reluctant to spend money," said Dave Borle, general manager of True North Ford, where sales are down as much as 40 per cent in the last year. "There's uncertainty in the community about jobs and layoffs, so we've definitely seen a downturn in sales."

Borle said lost sales have led to layoffs at the dealership. Vehicles sales haven't really recovered at True North Ford since the financial crisis of 2008.

Dave Borle, General Manager of True North Ford.

"With shale oil taking a real big spot in the market, companies diverted resources out of the north and out of conventional oil production, which we primarily are," said Borle. "So in 2008, when things crashed, we lost clients then and they just haven't come back to this community."

Tareq Morad, who owns and operates four hotels in High Level, said bookings are down between 20 and 30 per cent as the economy brand hotels. But there has been little impact at the Best Western Plus Mirage Hotel and Resort.

"The community of High Level has learned to diversify from just being reliant on oil and gas between December and the month of March, where we traditionally found all of our revenue streams," said Morad.

He said the community is attracting a more diversified clientele base from various sectors of the economy. There's a new hospital with a large staff and a good number of government jobs.

Tareq Morad, owner and operator at Best Western Plus.

High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer said the two mills remain big employers in the area, and a low Canadian dollar helps them with exports to the U.S.

McAteer said agriculture also remains a big driver for the economy.

And while she's disappointed two oil companies pulled out of the area completely, she said oil and gas only account for about 20 per cent of local the economy.

"So the oil and gas has not impacted High Level as much as some other communities that are focused solely on gas and oil."

McAteer said many people from nearby First Nations, as well as from the Northwest Territories, still plan trips to High Level to do their shopping.

That means people are still spending money in local stores.

Dave Peters said the town's spirit is helping everyone through tough times. But while oil prices and the Canadian dollar remain low, he has to pinch every penny.

"You just have to re-look at everything and make sure you're operating as efficiently as humanly possible."




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