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Business swells in Norman Wells

John Curran
Northern News Services

Norman Wells (Dec 06/04) - With the petroleum industry surging around the Sahtu, Norman Wells businesses are busy expanding to meet the ever-increasing need for services.

Right: Kevin Parsons, a sheet metal worker, prepares a piece of the ventilation system for installation in Norman Wells' Heritage Hotel, which is slated to open by the end of this year. - John Curran/NNSL photo

The impact of oil and gas -- and expectations tied to the proposed second Mackenzie Valley pipeline -- has firms scrambling to add capacity to their existing operations.

Perhaps the biggest developments are in the area of lodging.

The Heritage Hotel, which co-developer Kevin Diebold estimates is a $4 million to $5 million project, is a joint venture between his Whiponic Wellputer and partner Jim Ulch's Northern Cartrols.

"It's quite an investment on our part and for the community," said Diebold. "We figure given that we're a luxury hotel, we'll have no problem staying busy."

The T-shaped building will not only feature 26 380-square-foot rooms, three 740-sq.-ft. suites, a restaurant/ lounge, and meeting rooms, it will also house the Sahtu Health Authority Board in the near future.

Originally slated to open in January, the Heritage is now expected to be operating by mid-December and employ seven or eight individuals plus cleaning and maintenance staff. During construction, Diebold said approximately 30 people were working at the site on any given day.

The Heritage isn't the only lodging addition -- the Mackenzie Valley Hotel completed an extension last year and is adding a new hospitality centre.

All told, the operators will have 50 rooms available around the town, said Jane Han, co-owner of the establishment.

"With all of the pipeline meetings going on, things have been a lot busier," she said.

It's not just meetings keeping folks busy. Shuttling explorers to far-flung parts of the region has Sahtu Helicopters so busy it's adding a 100-foot by 40-foot hanger.

Right across the street from the Atco trailer that has served as both office and shop for years now, the new structure will allow engineers to work on five aircraft at a time.

"Before, things used to die right off in the summer," said base manager and pilot Guy Thibault. Diamond and petroleum exploration now keeps choppers in the air year round.

The increasing push to keep seismic work as environmentally friendly as possible coupled with the mountainous terrain in the region, mean much of the work can only be done by helicopters. He also knows it's only going to get busier.

"There's going to be 600 km of pipeline route north of Fort Good Hope," that will be primarily supported by helicopters, he said.

There's so much development in Norman Wells these days, even the builders are building bigger buildings.

At Hodgson's Contacting, a new 10,000-sq.-ft. shop is expected to be done in January and the nearly 1,700-sq.-ft. office was completed earlier this year.

The company's bread and butter is building and maintaining winter roads for the oil and gas sector, while in the summer it keeps busy with the municipal street contract for Norman Wells.

Company owners Sherry and David Hodgson say they've come a long way since starting the company out of their home in 1999 when they had just three employees.

"Now during the winter we've got about 25 employees -- two-thirds of those are Northerners," said Sherry Hodgson.

Large fleet

The company's fleet includes about two dozen pieces of heavy-duty equipment and a variety of oilfield trucks and trailers.

Hodgson's Contracting also owns 51 per cent of Mackenzie Valley Logistics, a company specializing in rig transport.

It has added a new maintenance facility this summer as well, but it doesn't have a permanent location.

"It's completely portable and can be shipped any where in four truckloads," said David Hodgson.

"It's like a giant Mechano set -- four guys with a forklift can set it up in a day."

The mobile shop features a generator, heater and welder with multiple bays and enough room to service four large vehicles at the same time.

"We didn't start out intending to be this big, but you have to expand with the work that's available," he said. "We're lucky to be in Norman Wells."