The city with the strongest economy, lowest unemployment and arguably the best outlook, isn't as far west as some Canadians might think. It's Regina.
By just about any measure Regina enjoying an unprecedented boom. Unemployment has fallen to 3.9 per cent, the lowest for any city in Canada. Its economy grew by 6.1 per cent last year, the highest for any city, and the number of people on employment insurance is down by nearly 11 per cent year over year. And those are just the statistics.
Take a look around the city and the signs of growth abound. There's a new office tower going up downtown and another even larger one on the way. A $2-billion refinery project is underway and over at the Global Transportation Hub, a sprawling network of rail lines and distribution centres, Loblaw Companies Ltd. has doubled employment to around 1,000, Yanke Group of Companies is building a $20-million intermodal facility, Alliance Grain Traders is putting up a pasta plant and Canadian Pacific is planning to run up to 250,000 container cars through the site, about six times more than it currently handles. There's talk of a new football stadium and even pressure to build more cricket fields to accommodate the many newcomers.
"It's very good here," says Alfred Chan who moved to Regina five years ago after immigrating to Toronto from China. Mr. Chan spent three years in Toronto looking for a decent career only to end up driving a cab. Then a friend told him about Regina and he decided to head west. "I'd never heard of Regina and I couldn't even pronounce Saskatchewan," Mr. Chan recalled. He landed a job with a computer company within a few weeks and now helps run a Chinese-language newspaper as well.
"Our economy is firing on all cylinders, we're going very well here," said Michael Fougere, a city councillor who is also president of the Saskatchewan Construction Association. "I've been here 24 years and I've not seen anything like this before. This is sustained. This is not a one year thing at all."
He added that Regina is also benefiting from the strong agriculture and resource sectors, including the expansion of several potash projects, that are driving the rest of the province's economy. And he said the biggest challenge now is finding enough workers. "We simply need people here no question about that."
Indeed a shortage of labour has become one of the city's biggest issues. For years people left the city to find work elsewhere but that all changed around 2006 when the boom started. Regina's population has been growing steadily, nearly reaching 200,000, and last year 4,000 people arrived from outside Canada.
That's still not enough to dent the surging demand for workers. A website called Saskjobs.ca lists more than 13,000 job openings with nearly 4,000 in Regina. "Ten years ago, [the site]would have been almost empty," said Kerry Hiles, chief executive of the Regina Regional Opportunities Commission, the city's economic development agency.
Larry Heid is so desperate for workers at his company, Magna Electric Corp., he has had to fly people in from across Canada just to complete various projects. "I need 100 more guys," Mr. Heid said. "We're not a big company. We have about 400 employees." Mr. Heid got so desperate last year he ran an advertising campaign in various cities called "Make Home Home Again" in attempt to lure back Saskatchewan expats. "We were trying to get people to move back from Toronto or Calgary. We had some good success with that."
There are other pressures too. Regina has one of the lowest vacancy rates for housing and office space. That has pushed up rents and house prices. The average price of a bungalow in the city has climbed to $316,500, up nearly 11 per cent year over year. Rents for even modest apartments are close to $1,200 a month, roughly double what they were six years ago.
"It's a virtual crisis for housing here," said Mr. Fougere. "The housing demand can't be met."
But for now people like Cris Zhang, who started the Chinese paper last year and is considering expanding it, are marvelling at the boom times. "My friends thought I was crazy to move here," said Ms. Zhang who moved to Regina from Toronto about ten years ago with her husband and daughter. "Now they are all jealous."
REGINA BY THE NUMBERS
Regina's unemployment rate for March, down from 4.4% in February.
Canada's unemployment rate for March, down from 7.4% in February.
Regina's GDP growth in 2011.
Regina's vacancy rate for commercial property.
Year-over-year increase in the price of a detached bungalow in Regina, first quarter of 2012.
Average price of a bungalow in Regina.
Editor's note: A previous online version of this story incorrectly identified Kerry Hiles, and incorrectly described Alfred Chan's role at a Regina Chinese-language newspaper.