ALBERTA

Calgary Stampede A Welcome Distraction In A Depressing Year

07/12/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/12/2016 05:59 EDT
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Despite a drop in attendance so far this year, the Calgary Stampede is offering a nice escape in an otherwise gloomy year for the oil town.

On the grounds of the annual 10-day party, fewer people are flocking to the midway and rodeo. Food vendors accustomed to selling out everyday have yet to clear out their stock, even on the busiest of afternoons and nights. Barbecue stands expecting to cook up five kilograms of meat are only going through three.

Official figures from the Stampede are that attendance is down by about eight per cent this year, leading into the final weekend.

"Last year it was pretty strong. This year I heard that it has been down because of the oil," said Dustin Usher, working one of the midway games. "Hopefully it'll be the same. I just want the money, right?"

Welcome distraction

The Stampede has definitely succeeded in one aspect this year, providing a distraction for the downtrodden oilpatch. For much of the past year talk on the streets of downtown Calgary has been about the decline in the price of oil.

But this week is different, with oil and gas office workers throwing on boots, jeans, and a Stetson -- for a short while, forgetting about spending cuts, layoffs and financial red ink.

There's nothing like free pancakes in the morning and leaving work at noon to boost one's spirits.

"You can't help but feel the enthusiasm, the pride in the city. At least it gives everyone a moment to not worry," said Doug Suttles, CEO of oil and gas company Encana. "At least for ten days."

The drop in Stampede attendance shouldn't come as a surprise considering the economic situation. Some companies decided to cancel their corporate parties this year and catering firms have lamented a drop in business. Last month's Global Petroleum Show, a massive conference and trade show in Calgary with about 50,000 attendees from around the world, was also noticeably quieter.

As the oilpatch goes through many periods of ups and downs, so too does the Calgary Stampede. The last five years have proved to be exceptionably adventurous for the western fair and rodeo.

- 2011 — Calgary receives global attention as Will and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, take in Stampede festivities. Even the annual parade became a news spectacle. 

- 2012 — A big year as the Stampede celebrates its centennial. The party is big and bold, leading to record attendance.

- 2013 — Massive floods hit Southern Alberta, washing away parts of the grounds. Attendance flops as concerts are cancelled and locals clean up. The event is still memorable, symbolizing the community rising up from the disaster and recovering from the flood. 

- 2014 — Oil tops $100 US a barrel and the hot economy spurs significant spending. Attendance is near record breaking.

- 2015 — Crude prices have tumbled and hover around $50 US a barrel.

Tourism up

One industry expecting a banner year is tourism. Alberta is projected to see a record number of visitors from the United States in 2015, as Americans take advantage of the low Canadian dollar. The Stampede is seeing an increase in international visitors by about three per cent this year.

"The exchange dynamics are making it a great tourist attraction, hopefully that's an offset to the the lower local spending," said Adam Legge, an economist and president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

​The increase in foreign visitors is noticed by those working on the grounds.

"Absolutely, I've seen a lot more tourists," said Karen Moreland as she sells lottery tickets for the local Kinette Club. "It's a lot of fun meeting people from all over the world."  

The Stampede will still attract more than one million people this year and on certain evenings the crowds have been as large as ever.

"I just go to the beer garden because I get a little claustrophobic." said Jake Gossen, who takes in the rodeo every year.

The weather is also a factor.

On the first weekend of this year's Stampede, cowboy hats became a protective device as a sudden hail storm rolled through Calgary's downtown. Outdoor festivals are always at the mercy of the weather and the Stampede is no different.

Stampede administration points out last year's weather was spectacular, without a day of rain. That's why it's hard to set expectations too high for such an event, regardless of whether Calgary's economy is roaring hot or stuck in a near recession.

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Calgary Stampede 2015