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No room at the inns

Businessman erects camp to house construction workers

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 14/02) - In an effort to provide a cheaper place to stay for travelling construction workers, local businessman Tony Chang has erected a temporary camp to meet some of Yellowknife's accommodations needs.

"Right now, one of the major problems in Yellowknife is there's nowhere for crews to stay -- for construction or for anything."

The huge volume of construction taking place in Yellowknife this summer has exceeded the capacities of the local construction population. For many companies, that has meant a need to bring people up from the south -- often specific tradespeople like carpenters, plumbers, electricians or drywallers.

But the volume of construction work comes during a pinched Yellowknife housing market, and many construction companies have been forced to put up their workers in hotel rooms.

In response, Chang has built a temporary camp which can comfortably house 22 people, with individual rooms, a common lounge with a television and a full kitchen.

"Realistically, what it is it's like a big boarding home -- bathrooms and showers and the whole works," said Chang.

Built on one of his properties in the Kam Lake industrial district, the network of portable trailers cost somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. Chang won't say exactly how much, but said a new camp would probably cost about $375,000 to set up.

Chang's is only the second camp of its kind in Yellowknife. The other is run by Harvey Silzer, who has an eight-person caretaker's residence that is also located in Kam Lake.

For a number of years, builders were discouraged from erecting similar camps by city a bylaw on bunkhouses, the technical term for the temporary accommodations.

Under those rules, companies must pay a $20,000 deposit to set up a camp, which can only be used for workers engaged in a specific project.

Rules reviewed

Those rules are currently under review, and could change, but so far they have prevented companies like JSL Mechanical from establishing camps.

Sheila Leonardis, who works with JSL, said the requirement "kind of turns people away."

"With the way Yellowknife is expanding, they need places to put the workers if they want them up here," she said.

Lodging at these camps usually costs about $40 a night. That's a far cry from hotel rates, which can easily run to $100 a night. And cheaper accommodations means cheaper construction, said Eric Sputek, president of Hovat Construction.

"It drives the cost of construction up, no doubt about it," he said. "If you have to pay $100 or $110 a night to keep a guy, that basically adds $10 for every hour that he's working. Where we were charging $35 an hour for a carpenter, we're stuck having to charge $45 an hour."

One of the questions in loosening regulations on the camps is the possible impact they might have on local hotels.

Yellowknife Mayor Gord Van Tighem said so far, he hasn't heard any complaints from local hoteliers. Because they are temporary, the camps also prevent a housing boom from overextending itself and exceeding the actual population demands of an area.

"If you look at areas where there's a huge influx of workers that ebb and flow, like Fort Liard -- at one point in time Fort Liard had probably almost 1,000 people in camps because the work was there and the people weren't," said Van Tighem. "When the work left, the camps are portable and they moved to where the work is."