It’s time to take Saskatoon seriously

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Posted September 13, 2012 by Adrian Brijbassi in Editors Choice

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Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor

SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN — Are you sick of hearing about the financial woes in your country or city? Think there’s nowhere in North America, Europe or maybe the entire world where you can duck from the doom and gloom of an economic downturn that seems like it will never abate?

Then you need to go to Saskatoon. Not only to realize that there may indeed be a tomorrow where prosperity is possible but to enjoy the sense of vitality that seems to arise when people, businesses and municipalities have a little extra in their pockets. The positive feelings that good times engender is palpable here in an outpost that many Canadians scoff at without ever paying it a visit.

Jamie Grist has benefitted from the booming economy in the province’s largest city. After moving around the country, she left the east coast to return to her hometown. Real estate prices were going up, even in neighbourhoods notorious for their drug culture, and Grist didn’t want to miss an opportunity.

“You have to try really hard not to have a job in this province,” says Grist, who manages El Mercado Palapas, a year-old Mexican grocery store on Broadway Avenue. The neighbourhood surrounding the store is considered to be among the most affluent districts of a city that will surprise visitors with its natural and architectural beauty. Broadway isn’t glitzy but it does feature boutique stores, vintage shops, music venues and restaurants.

Saskatoon Just May Convince Doubters

The Mexican market isn’t the only ethnic spot that’s popped up. Halal eateries have recently joined Indian restaurants as the city’s tastes diversify with its population. In the downtown that’s a short drive from Broadway, you’ll also find well-known designer franchises like American Apparel and LuluLemon, along with a major public green space, Meewasin Park. It’s home to one of Canada’s most highly regarded outdoor skating rinks as well as a promenade that runs above the South Saskatchewan River, a waterway that cuts through the city, offering a unique canoe or kayak experience. And in the streets there are big housing developments and luxury automobiles causing heads to turn.

“You look around and you see all of these big trucks driving around and you know there’s a lot of money here. You do realize it and you do think that it’s different than what’s happening across the border to the south and how people are losing their homes there. It’s something awful in lots of other places too, not just in the States, but we’ve been insulated from it here,” resident Cliff Speer says of the economic hard times elsewhere in the world. Speer runs CanoeSki Discovery Company, a leading provider of eco-tourism and adventure experiences in the province. An expert outdoorsman, Speer takes groups up and down the Saskatchewan rivers. Originally from Manitoba, he has lived in Saskatchewan for decades and like many residents finds the change in fortunes remarkable. “It wasn’t that long ago that Saskatchewan was a have-not province,” he says, noting that the federal government would send equalization payments to the province when it couldn’t cover the costs for social programs such as healthcare and welfare.

In 2009, Saskatchewan didn’t need Ottawa’s help for the first time in years and it won’t receive any payments in 2012-13 either.

“I can tell you that Saskatchewan is the envy of a lot of places around the world right now.” Those words were uttered two years ago by William J. Doyle, the president and CEO of Potash Corporation, and he said them with a straight face. When you look at the unemployment figures in other jurisdictions, you understand that Saskatchewan — often maligned by other provinces for being boring, frigid and uncultured — does, indeed, possess magnetism. The province’s ability to stave off “the ravages of the great recession” has led to robust economic growth that appears sustainable to Doyle and other forecasters.

Unlike Alberta, whose booming economy is focused almost entirely on the oil and gas industries, Saskatchewan is diversified. The province’s strengths include fossil fuels, clean energy and agriculture. What it doesn’t have much of is tourism and even that may change, too, as the province and Saskatoon continue to market themselves to the world.  In 2010, the most recent year statistics were available from Saskatchewan’s tourism boards, the province had roughly 9.5 million visitors, a meagre number compared to the nearly 23 million who visited neighbouring Alberta. This year’s Calgary Stampede drew a record 1.4 million visitors — a 10-day total that’s not far off the roughly 1.85 million travellers that Saskatoon hosts in a full year.

The hope is the strong economy will lead to investment that will grow the tourism industry in Saskatoon, as well as attract more business clients, who currently comprise about 15 per cent of the visitors to the city. In recent years, direct flights from American cities such as Denver and Chicago have been added, and tourists from Asia have come because of the educational offerings at the University of Saskatchewan, noted for its medical programs.

In all, tourism accounted for $364.9 million in consumer spending in the city two years ago. Saskatoon is Canada’s fastest-growing metropolis, Statistics Canada says, and its municipal government predicts its economy will expand by a stunning 4.1 per cent in 2012. Not long ago, people were fleeing the province to find work and now that exodus has reversed, as citizens like Grist return home.

“This really is a wonderful place to live. It’s a strong community and people are a lot more tolerant than they were years ago,” she says. “All of a sudden we’re cool now.”

Plenty to Do in Booming Saskatoon

Beyond cool, Saskatoon and its surrounding areas are a delight. (And, yes, if you’re reading this in Toronto, that’s written with a straight face.) The annual blues and folk festivals are becoming more attractive to visitors and musicians each year. About five kilometres north of the city, the Wanuskewin Heritage Park offers a fascinating glimpse into an archaeological dig that has unearthed First Nations artifacts older than anywhere else in North America. If the streets aren’t picturesque, the bridges that connect them are, and there’s enough nightlife to keep things interesting most evenings of the week.

And then there’s the potential of the food scene. It seems like a no-brainer that a place serving as a bread basket for an increasing amount of the world would have a swath of excellent restaurants. That’s not the case in Saskatoon, where many of the 240,000 residents have been slow to adopt contemporary fine dining. But they are coming around, the staff at one establishment told me during my visit last month.

“Ten years ago, it was meat and potatoes, and that was it,” says Jordan Hamilton, a server at Weczeria, perhaps the best restaurant in the city. “We grow 70 per cent of the world’s lentils in Saskatchewan and you put it on a menu and people ask, ‘What’s that?’ They don’t even know. But the last three or four years, we’ve noticed a change. People’s tastes are becoming more sophisticated, they’re more willing to try things, and that’s also because we have more people coming in from different parts of the country and the world. People are coming here, not leaving.”

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture says its farmers export 61 per cent of the world’s lentils, a crop that barely existed in the province 30 years ago. In 1981, farmers planted 85,000 acres and now province-wide there are more than 2.3 million acres of lentils, perhaps best known as the main ingredient in Indian staples like Mulligatawny soup and dal. Shoppers will find them among the loads of produce for sale at the city’s farmers’ market, one of nation’s finest, and while browsing the stalls they might spot Weczeria chef Dan Walker.

He represented Saskatchewan at the 2011 Canadian Gold Medal Plates culinary championships and says his restaurant benefits from its proximity to the province’s fruits, vegetables, grains and fresh-water fish, including delicious steelhead trout from nearby Lake Diefenbaker.

It’s not a stretch to imagine a place that has a bounty of food and unspoiled lakes could turn into a strong tourist destination. For Canadians who have long smirked at Saskatchewan and its flatness that might be a difficult sell. Others, though, may be more easily convinced. Consider that in less than a century tourism hot spots have been developed out of a desert destination with oppressive heat (Dubai), unwanted swamp land (Orlando, Florida) and a cold, Nordic centre that’s become a draw because of its world-class cuisine (Copenhagen, Denmark), and notions that Saskatoon may someday become a city travellers add to their bucket list might not seem ridiculous.

For now, at least, its streets are a magic kingdom of prosperity, and that sure is a sight to see, don’t you think?

South Saskatchewan River Boat Saskatoon

A river boat on the South Saskatchewan River passes under one of Saskatoon’s bridges. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

More About Visiting Saskatoon

Where to Stay: The Sheraton Cavalier Saskatoon (612 Spadina Crescent East; telephone: 306-652-6770) offers comfortable, spacious rooms with plush beds and flat-screen TVs. It is also home to one of the city’s top cocktail lounges, 6twelve. Getting a room with access to the new Club Lounge is well worth the additional charge of about $60 per night. Club Lounge access includes complimentary breakfast, a nightly buffet, and coffee, tea and non-alcoholic beverages throughout the day. Nightly room rates without Club access start at $194. Across the street is the historic Delta Beesborough (601 Spadina Crescent East; telephone: 306-244-5521), a former railway hotel with nightly rates starting at $189. Both properties are steps from Meewasin Park.

Where to Eat: Weczeria (820 Broadway Avenue; telephone: 306-933-9600) is outstanding. Chef Dan Walker has created a contemporary dining experience that wouldn’t look out of place in Toronto’s West Queen West neighbourhood — except nowhere in Canada’s largest city will you find steelhead trout as fresh or as tasty as you’ll enjoy at Weczeria. Vacay.ca will have more on Walker and Weczeria in the coming weeks.

What to Do: Make sure you sign up for a tour with Cliff Speer of CanoeSki Discovery Company. He’s as knowledgeable a canoe or kayak guide as you will find and will share lots of information about the wildlife and plants you discover on your trek — as well as help you brush up on your Canadian history. Rates and packages vary. Contact Speer for details (telephone: 306-653-5693; email: cliff@canoeski.com) and to customize a trip that fits your desires.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park offers hikes to different archaeological sites as well as First Nations dance performances and the opportunity to stay in a tipi. Adult tickets are $8.50.

More Info: Read the excellent article on Saskatoon’s gentrifying Riversdale neighbourhood, written by Vacay.ca Senior Writer Cinda Chavich.

 
Map Showing Directions from Sheraton Cavalier Saskatoon to Weczeria Restaurant

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About the Author

Adrian Brijbassi
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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and his articles are frequently syndicated by the Huffington Post and appear in the Globe & Mail. He makes regular appearances on CTV News, TSN Radio and CJSF Radio, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction, and has visited more than 30 countries. He is also a judge for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and spearheaded the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada list that debuted in April 2012.

 
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