No one has profited more from the Calgary Stampede than Paul Vickers, whose raucous saloon called Cowboys has sold rivers of beer to young guys and gals in big hats, served by women who all seemed to look like Shania Twain in her sexy-cowgirl phase.
Its noisy party tent was missing the last three years, but when the Stampede opens on Friday for its 99th year, Cowboys will be back with a vengeance, having pitched its trademark tent in a coveted site adjoining the Stampede grounds southeast of Calgary's downtown.
The timing couldn't be better for Cowboys to get its boots back on. "The Stampede is the barometer for Calgary," says Mr. Vickers - and the weather in the 2008-2010 period was mainly bad as the Alberta economy went through one of its dips.
But this year, oil prices are nicely up, and visitor traffic looks strong from Saskatchewan and other energy hot spots across Western Canada.
All eyes will be on Calgary and the Stampede this week because of the presence of the royal newlyweds, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The couple will help kick off the annual parade Friday and will be spectators at some Stampede events.
For Calgary, the spotlight comes as the energy industry, on which everything rides, is looking pretty good. The oil sands are attracting waves of new investment and global energy giants are gobbling up oil and gas property leases. A lot of companies budgeted for $80-$85 U.S. a barrel of oil; the current price above $90 presents a tidy windfall.
It's not all smooth sailing, because this spring's wet weather has hampered oil-field activity in some key energy zones of the southern Prairies, and the price of natural gas is still in the tank.
"The gas guys will be drinking beer at the Stampede this year, instead of Crown Royal," says Leonard Waverman, dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, who otherwise sees the mood as "very upbeat."
George Brookman, a former Stampede chairman who now chairs Tourism Calgary, says even the threat of a huge office-space glut, much feared 18 months ago, appears to be subsiding as vacancy rates decline. The economy is not back to 2007, but the recovery is in full swing.
The optimism was reflected in the annual auction of the Stampede chuck-wagon race tarps that serve as a kind of canvas billboard for companies - and an economic indicator. This year's auction netted $2.8-million, almost $900,000 ahead of last year, but still below the $4-million of 2007. The largest sum paid was $170,000 - not by an oil-and-gas player but by a new Internet coupon company.
There are other factors in Calgary's swagger. A Conservative Party led by a Calgarian has just won a federal majority in Ottawa - and a small army of Alberta Conservative leadership candidates and their handlers will be pressing the flesh at the big Stampede parties.
Politics will not be on the minds of the men and women in their 20s lining up at the Cowboys tent - or at the nearby Stampede Casino, which later this year will be rebranded the Cowboys Casino as Mr. Vickers takes over management of food, beverage and entertainment venues.
The Cowboys party tent was missing the last three Stampedes, after a new office development pushed the notorious honky-tonk out of its prominent downtown location. The nightclub had reopened for a time in another of Mr. Vickers's saloon sites, but was rebuffed by the city in a quest for a new permanent location.
But now, the former bad boy of Calgary night life is being embraced by the establishment Stampede to help turn around the troubled casino, which it recently acquired out of receivership. At the Stampede, 'they want to get younger," Mr. Vickers explains.
That means wooing hordes of young folks from energy towns like Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray and Fort St. John, B.C., who spill into the city with fistfuls of dollars to spend at restaurants and bars. It happens all year round, but Mr. Vickers has often earned 20 per cent of his annual revenue from the 10 days of Stampede.
Some of the visitors this year will be wearing Western hats made by Bryce Nimmo's company, Smithbilt Hats Inc.. This year's Stampede marks a coming-out party for one of the country's rare surviving hat-makers with roots back to 1919.
Smithbilt will be selling hats on the Stampede grounds for the first time, aiming for sales of at least 25,000 during the event. "What I've seen is there is more confidence in the economy these days," Mr. Nimmo says.
Calgary's symbol is the white hat, and the Stampede is the ultimate expression of that symbol. Smithbilt is supplying high-end Western hats for the city as gifts to the royal couple, but on the Stampede grounds, it will be selling lots of $15-$20 models, including a straw hat for children.
With the energy economy flourishing, he's hoping their parents will come back and say, "Hey, I can afford a $100 felt hat."