Powell River truck driver Sean Russell wouldn't even have considered the northern British Columbia gas fields if it weren't for the well-equipped 400-bed Encana workcamp where he ended up working 21-day-straight shifts for more than a year.
"The camp is about 200 kilometres north of Fort Nelson, so without the camp I wouldn't have had anywhere to stay," Russell said, adding he liked the camp life. "The food was terrific and we had free WI-FI and TV and even a gym. It was like living on a cruise boat." And the rent is free.
It is estimated that more than 6,000 workers are now living in work camps, or mancamps as they are also called, in northern British Columbia and many of the camps are edging quite closer to town. This month, in fact, a real cruise ship will anchor at Kitimat to provide temporary accommodation for construction workers completing Rio Tinto Alcan's $3.3 billion aluminum smelter expansion.
Rio Tinto already has a 1,700-person work camp at Kitimat and will house up to 500 workers in the 170-metre Silja Festival, a Baltic cruise ferry that has multiple decks, four restaurants, a sauna and crew of 110.
The profusion of fancy work camps does not please everyone, however.
When the Peace River Regional District board approved a three-year permit for a 250-man work camp in the Pink Mountain area 150 km. north of Fort St. John, the Board heard that the camps can negatively affect business and quality of life in the district.
"From the research we've done so far, we find that there is actually no taxation – [the workcamps] are exempt from provincial taxes and exempt from hotel taxes if they're in municipalities that have hotel taxes," said Rudy Van Spronsen, director of the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce.
He said that means workcamps have a clear advantage over local landlords.
Dawson Creek hotel owners Sam Mangalji and Peter Chan complained that business has declined over the past year, partially due to workers moving into workcamps.
Delegates raised the issues of a lack of engagement with local business and taxation on work camps when compared to local housing.
Doug Scott, president of Real Flow Investments has built 200 rental apartments in Dawson Creek and has nearly completed a 64-unit condominium building that is aimed at investors. Scott said work camps are creating a barrier for his business.
"We consider all these options, and then it comes along one day that there's a huge mancamp coming in 20 kilometres from Dawson Creek," said Scott. "I can honestly say today that I don't think we would have went ahead and built that 64-unit building if we had known that camp was coming."
Scott said one of the issues he's faced is having workers rent out apartments on a month-to-month basis, with the suggestion of a year-long term, and then leaving as soon as space frees up at a nearby work camp.