Tumbler Ridge Open Camp considers pulling out of town

Trent Ernst

Sitting Empty: The parking lot at the Tumbler Ridge Open Camp sits empty. The camp has had an occupancy rate of less than ten percent on average, far less than it needs to survive. GNS Industrial Trailer Services Ltd., who run the camp, are planning on shutting the camp down Feb.15 and pulling out of town over the next few months. 
It was barely six months ago that Tumbler Ridge was in the heart of its biggest housing crisis ever. There were rumours of houses renting for thousands of dollars a month, of workers piled up like driftwood in any available space. The town’s hotels were running at nearly 100 percent capacity, and even the Monkman RV park was running at or near capacity all summer.
Out at the Tumbler Ridge Open Camp, though, the situation was completely different. Graham Schulte, the owner of G.N.S Industrial Trail Services out of Edmonton,  says that the camp is running at less than 25 percent capacity month over month. “We have about 120 beds out there for rent. In May 2012 there were about 3600 man days. We were occupied … maybe 400 of those, so only ten or 15 percent.” These days occupancy ratios are even lower.
Schulte says the company is losing money every month. “We’re about one million dollars in the hole,” he says. “We would make far more renting it on the open market. We can’t let it sit there any longer.”
He says that the company had conversations with many industrial representatives in the area, and there was a lot of excitement for the camp. “A lot of the coal guys and contractors promised they would use it. We were planning on growing it and we had some pretty neat facilities planned.”
But with Teck planning to house their construction workforce out on the mine site, and Peace River Coal having their own hotel to house their workers, things are not looking good for the beleaguered open camp. 
“We’ve fulfilled our contract with the district,” says Schulte. “We had a twelve-month contract. Now we are running it month to month.”
Even a recent decision by council to prevent Northern Lands Development Corporation from having a work camp at the Monkman Commons, encouraging the company to house workers at the Open Camp instead lead to little, if any, pickup. “There are four guys staying there right now,” says Schulte. “None of them, as far as I can see, are working out there.”
James Rae, from Northern Lands says there were two factors preventing them from utilizing the camp. The first was price. “$175 a night? Wow. That’s a lot of money. The only companies that can afford that are the coal companies and the oil and gas. That’s out of our budget.”
Schulte says that the price is comparable to any camp in the north, and includes housekeeping and food services. Room and housekeeping and three meals a day? We’re not with any means out of touch with the prices of all camps within 200 miles. I don’t think it’s pricing.”
Rae says the other reason they didn’t use the camp was the wind project. “We ended up renting ten houses in town. When we were starting, there was nothing available, but the wind guys were leaving just as we were getting into the swing of things. We had two of our guys living out at the camp pretty well through the end of the year, but everyone else was in crew houses.”
Schulte says the company’s target market is not one or two guys coming to work at the mine, but at the crews coming into town to work, a plan that just hasn’t come to fruition. “We’ve had crews of a hundred plus in our Wonowon, and when we first opened here, we were at capacity. We were told by Anglo that it was too expensive, but we tried dropping the price and it doesn’t make a difference.”
The company’s decision to look at leaving comes suspiciously close on the heels of Teck’s recent decision to situate their work camp out at the Quintette Mine Site rather than in town. Schulte says the company is flexible and would be able to bring in the additional capacity to serve the needs of a 400-500 man camp. “We had the talk with Teck. We wanted to grow the facility and keep people in town. Teck was more interested in setting the camp up out of town. We aren’t overly interested with moving the facility out to their mine site.”
Even Walter Energy, who have been in serious talks with the camp to provide 49 standard rooms and 16 executive rooms have yet to pull the trigger on the project. “They just haven’t proceeded. We went through and provided them drawings. We got so far as to send them a contract. But we’ve heard nothing back.”
While the cost of keeping the camp open and underutilized is hurting the company, Schulte says more difficult is the fact that these units could be better served elsewhere.  “We’re out of equipment. It doesn’t make sense for us to keep it there. There’s the opportunity cost. The kitchen is a million dollar kitchen, and we could be using it elsewhere.”
Schulte says they’re not gone yet, and if something comes up in the next few weeks or so, chances are the camp will stay. He says more than that, they want to stay. But he’s not optimistic. Last week, about half the units were mothballed, turning off the power and propane to save on costs. “It’s a matter of hours to fire it back up. We’d love to keep it there. Expand it. Grow it. Customize it.”
And if nothing changes? “February 15 is the day we turn the lights out. Dismantle will begin shortly after that. We had such strong interest and commitment at the beginning, but now we need to do more than sit and wait. If they’re not going to be using here, life must go on. It’s costing us a fortune. Unfortunately we’ve exhausted our options to draw in clients after a year of optimism and various proposals to the surrounding Coal companies, their contracted engineering firms and contractors.  
“We do anticipate that a lodging facility will be required in Tumbler Ridge at some point, it’s just a matter of when?”