Outpost of opportunity / St John's
Lost and found
Thanks to a strong leader, oil discoveries, new direct flights to Europe and a prime-time drama set in St John’s, it’s boom time for this Canadian province, leading everyone from Norwegian engineers to New York art directors to relocate here.
It’s Wednesday night and the streets of St John’s, Newfoundland, are deserted. All 120,000 people in this city, it seems, are glued to their TVs watching CBC’s new detective series, Republic of Doyle.
The hit series has become a national anthem for New Newfoundland. Executive producer, creator and star Allan Hawco, a handsome blue-eyed Newfoundlander says, “It’s a 10-year dream of mine to have this detective show set in St John’s, the city I love. For my entire life, our province was always in a depression with everybody having to leave to find work. Never did I think I’d see the rest of the world in a recession and us thriving.”
For 490 years, Newfoundlanders fished and battled it out – physically, geographically and economically. But oil and gas discoveries have taken Newfoundland from a collection of dying fishing villages to a booming economy in 10 years. Now new oil finds, a hydroelectric project and a nickel mine could bring CA$10bn (€6.7bn) in revenues to the province. And technology entrepreneurs are making millions developing ancillary products to support oil and mining exploration. Housing prices and retail sales are also on the up and there’s a creative subculture producing literature, advertising and media technologies that have garnered international clients and awards.
But the island with its population of half a million people still has the same rocky coastline where puffins and seals live and locals watch whales from their windows. In villages with colourful names such as Dildo, Hearts Content and Leading Tickles, equally colourful houses are perched on rocky cliffs. And in downtown St John’s, you can sit in a restaurant and watch the rigging of a boat passing over the tops of the buildings. It’s not uncommon to see icebergs floating into the city’s harbour.
Newfoundland’s dramatic change in fortunes did not happen overnight. When Premier Danny Williams was elected in 2003 he wanted Newfoundland to get a greater share of the revenues from its natural resources. “It seemed everyone except Newfoundland and Labrador was making money on our resources,” says Williams. First, he renegotiated a better deal on oil revenues and called the bluff of the big oil firms when they threatened to leave. At the time, he was labelled the Hugo Chávez of Canada but his win has meant billions for Newfoundland.
Williams’ second battle is with power firm Hydro-Québec. “My goal is to get back our resources!” he says in his eighth-floor office. A Hydro-Québec contract signed in 1969 allows Quebec to sell electricity for 40 times what it pays Newfoundland for it. Williams announced in January that the deal with Hydro-Québec is now the subject of a law suit.
If Newfoundland wins this battle it has ambitions to build a hydroelectric plant lower down the same Churchill River which he says Hydro-Québec is currently blocking. A decision is expected in March and Williams hopes then to start building the new plant which he thinks could generate billions in revenue.
Across town at Nautical Nellies, over a lunch of pan-fried catfish and scrunchions (fried pork fat), Jerry Byrne, CEO of DFB Group, talks about moving back to Newfoundland from Virginia in 2002 to take over the family business, “DFB Group was always a mom-and-pop waterfront shop that provided welding, construction and support to marine industries and made CA$1.2m a year.” In 2003, thanks to the demands of the growing oil and gas industry, DFB made CA$4m and has doubled profits every year since.
In the parking lot of DFB’s Extreme East Rigging Services, Alex Corbett oversees a crane that is lifting a nine-tonne iceberg net onto a truck. Corbett says, “These nets are for towing away icebergs if they are heading towards an oil rig. You surround the iceberg with the net and deflect it, redirect it, from the path it’s on. One net costs CA$140,000. We’ve made five so far and have interest from Russia, Scotland and a lot of oil companies doing work in the Arctic.”
But where do you learn how to tow the iceberg in the first place? The Institute for Ocean Technology is a CA$100m research laboratory that can make to scale any vehicle that goes in the ocean and also put it to the test in its state-of-the-art simulators. The Americas Cup sailing teams – the Italians, Australians, Americans and Swiss – are clients. The institute builds scale models of ships, submarines, oil rigs and yachts and trials them in one of three pools that can recreate waves and ice conditions. “We invented the technology; we perfected it. And it’s why all the syndicates come to us,” says communications co-coordinator Derek Yetman.
Down the road from the wave pools is the campus of the Marine Institute, with a fisheries school, an offshore survival centre, a centre for aquaculture and seafood development, and the Centre for Marine Simulation. Captain Christopher Hearn is the director of the centre and came here after spending years at sea as captain of Intrepid, a deep-sea cable-layer. He takes us to the ship simulation area.
“Right now, we are off the coast of St John’s and there is a huge iceberg ahead to our right,” says Hearn to the control room. “Mark, bring up the sea state, we’re going to hit that iceberg.” Our vessel pitches. The grey ocean is wild and white-capped and the iceberg is getting closer. Suddenly there is a crash. We’ve hit the ice. There is an awful scraping and a thud and the boat starts tilting. We’re going down fast. “We wouldn’t go down that fast,” says Hearn, “but we’d go down.” He laughs. “You know what they say about being at sea: hours of boredom, minutes of terror.”
Newfoundland is attracting engineers from Norway, students from China and tourists who come here and decide to stay. Monica Dominguez moved from Barcelona 14 years ago to raise Newfoundland dogs. John and Peggy Fisher moved to St John’s from Ontario and opened Fisher’s Loft Inn in Trinity Bay. Jake Trainor, recently moved here from Toronto for his dream job at Provincial Aerospace, an aerospace and defence firm that modifies and operates marine surveillance aircraft for governments around the world.
And for the first time in recent history, there is a new generation of young people staying put in Newfoundland. Ed Clarke started his technology firm ADfinitum and Global Ad Source with 24-year-old twin brothers Stephen and Jason Normore, who are keen surfers. The three partners have taken what was an idea two years ago and grown it into the world’s largest advertising and creative database with more than 6 million ads from 50 countries. Everyone from brand managers at Fortune 500 companies to media buyers at small ad agencies accesses their database – which offers the largest reach and broadest content available and is why Nielsen needs to worry. Clarke says, “The province really supports entrepreneurs but all our clients are overseas – Brazil, Tokyo, Madrid. We don’t even have any Canadian clients yet.”
Noel O’Dea, president and founder of Target, one of Canada’s top creative agencies, works out of a renovated warehouse overlooking the harbour. “Creative people flock here, I’ve had art directors from New York visit here and then weeks later, they were knocking on my door having moved here.”
Target’s ad campaign for Newfoundland Tourism has won more than 70 national and international advertising awards and has contributed to a steady increase in tourism averaging 2 per cent a year over the last six years. “People have an emotional connection to the place,” says O’Dea. “And when you live on an island, you need to be more resourceful. The pillars of creativity here are the culture, the people and the physical environment.”
Branding Newfoundland and repositioning the province has been a key mission of Premier Williams’ administration. Tourism is one of the largest economic drivers contributing CA$800m to the economy each year and directly supporting 12,730 jobs. The 2010 tourism figures will be worth watching with Air Canada starting daily non-stop flights to London in May.
Russell Wangersky, editor of Newfoundland’s daily paper, The Telegram, says, “Newfoundland is not without problems. The rural communities will have to find their place. There is more pressure between developers and people who want to keep the city the way it is. Unemployment is still 16 per cent. But the hydroelectric plant is the great white hope. That decision will be key to the future of the province.”
The ingenuity that has historically enabled Newfoundlanders to navigate the island’s rocky shoreline, move houses across the ice just using rowing boats and catch seals for flipper pie is perhaps not as impressive as how truly madly deeply in love they are with their homeland.
Williams says, “I don’t do this to stay in politics. I do this because I love this place and believe in it and so I go the extra nine yards. And I hear it at least once a week from people, ‘I’m so proud to be a Newfoundlander.’ We are finally getting respect. We are the new Canadians.”
Newly constructed buildings don’t do justice to the landscape. Bring in some good regional (or international if necessary) architects who are sensitive to the island’s vernacular architecture.
Parking downtown is a problem, so what about bike paths? It’s a myth that the temperatures are much colder than New York and the cold shouldn’t stop people cycling anyway – look at Copenhagen.
For some reason the names of the roads change almost every block. It only makes sense to someone who’s lived here a long time. If you want to make life easier, make urban navigation easier.
Market St John’s as the closest North American hub to Europe. London is just four hours away.
Create a hotel and convention centre that will make headlines and attract a global audience.
Made in Newfoundland
- ‘Riddle Fence’ – local arts and culture journal
- Handknit puffin sweater from NONIA, a clothing collective of ladies from local rural communities
- Handknit wool socks from the NONIA ladies
- The real thing: Auntie Crae’s homemade blueberry and bakeapple jam
- Newfoundland’s famous rum, Screech
- Indie rock band Hey Rosetta’s latest CD