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New York corporate lawyer Guy Lander at the Calgary Stampede, July 12, 2010.

When the Calgary Stampede rolls around each year, Guy Lander turns into a party animal.

You could catch him last week at Firewater Friday, the opening-night extravaganza held by investment bank Peters & Co.

He turned up at the venerable Hays Breakfast on Sunday. But he had to pass up joining the throngs listening to the Canadian Tenors in financier Jim Kinnear's backyard on Sunday afternoon.

For Mr. Lander, the Stampede isn't all flapjacks and burgers. As a New York securities lawyer, he comes to network and gauge the temperature of the Alberta oil patch.

On the latter count, he has observed three distinct moods over the past three years of Stampede party-going - boom, bust and, this year, hope.

"Things are more upbeat, no doubt," he says, surveying the talking, drinking hordes at the old brewery grounds in East Calgary, where Firewater Friday is held.

If the Stampede mood is, as people say, the barometer of the Alberta energy economy, its recent swings have been the stuff of migraine-inducing volatility. Last year, people were miserable and this year, they feel better - but don't break out the mimosas yet.

"People are being more cautiously optimistic but I emphasize the word 'cautiously,' " said former Liberal senator Dan Hays, whose politically and agriculturally inclined family holds Sunday breakfast for up to 3,000, and has been doing it for 60 years.


The best indicators of the current mood lie in the tone of conversations over orange juice, beer or chardonnay at corporate parties that line up from 7 in the morning to the wee small hours.

Last year, Mr. Lander says, the gloom from the economic meltdown and low energy prices was so bad that "you could feel it." But now the cloud has lifted a bit as oil prices have moved up, and, more tellingly, the flow of financial deals has opened up again. He sees Calgary as a more buoyant market than just about anywhere in North America.

But for Calgarians, there is always the overhanging cloud that, while things are up, they will probably be down again, and possibly soon.

"Calgary is a very cyclical business town," says Rob Peters, the veteran investment banker who founded Peters & Co. and now sits on the board of GMP Securities, the largest Canadian independent investment dealer.

Mr. Peters is now co-sponsor with the Hays family of the Hays Breakfast, and this year brought in GMP as another co-sponsor - an indicator that Stampede events still have cachet as marketing vehicles.

Only a year ago, many companies cut back on their sponsorship of the big parties. The most striking move was that of Calgary law firm Burnet Duckworth and Palmer, which decided to use cash it would have spent on a lavish party to make a large donation to charity. BDP is doing the same this year, contributing $200,000 to combat hunger in the city.

Certainly, the sheer number of Stampede events is up, but probably not back to what it was, says Bruce Graham, CEO of Calgary Economic Development.

Part of the reason is that the oil patch is less of a monolith these days, but more an amalgam of industries with very different economics. Although financings are up generally, a lot of the action is concentrated in oil and, specifically, heavy oil and oil sands . Meanwhile, conventional natural gas, still the big driver of the province's economy, remains in the tank. Shale gas is coming on, but it is very early days.

Even so, there was palpable optimism at Stampede parties from the announcement late last week of whopping oil-and-gas land sales in the province's Duvernay shale sector - $451-million in total outlays.

Countering this, real estate people are nervous about the ripple effect from close to 3 million square feet of new office space when the massive Bow Tower and Eighth Avenue Place come on the market over the next two years.

With this mixed bag of outlooks, Mr. Graham says the trend is to smaller, more private bashes where companies can focus attention on specific people they need to know.

Mr. Graham is showing no less enthusiasm for the Stampede. CED sponsored a popular pancake breakfast on the Stephen Avenue mall the morning before the Stampede kickoff.

He was resplendent in a simple but tastefully brocaded white cowboy shirt, with the customary two front pockets. For him the pockets are not so much a design feature but a filing system: His own business cards go out of one pocket and new contacts' cards flow into the other.

Mr. Graham knows he has a good day when the in-box pocket is bulging and the out-box pocket is empty.

A more unpredictable factor in gauging the Stampede temperature is the response of new players in the oil patch. The U.S. energy companies would always get caught up in the parties and pageantry because the Stampede's cowboy culture essentially mirrors the American West.

But for the new oil sands players, such as the Chinese, Norwegians and French, there is a learning curve. The foreign companies are taking baby steps, says Mr. Graham, starting by perhaps bidding for items at the legendary chuck-wagon tarp auction. But he feels they will be more visible.

Through all the changing players, one thing doesn't change: Calgarians let their hair down 10 days each year, all the while keeping it bundled under a large hat.

"There is something about wearing a cowboy hat," Mr. Graham muses, in the sense that, for a brief moment, anything goes - in good or bad times.

Boom: 2008

The oil patch was awash in money and optimism. Oil prices were at a record of $147 and stocks were at multi-year highs. The market crash, credit crisis and recession were just around the corner, but no one saw them coming.

Bust: 2009

Economies were mired in recession - or near recession - and oil prices were trying to recover from a plunge to less than $40 a barrel. Banks weren't lending, putting an end to dealmaking and new projects.

Hope: 2010

Drillers have been snapping up exploration rights and launching new projects as the economic recovery has gained traction. Canada's employers are hiring again, and oil seems to have found a solid level around $80 a barrel.