Øystein Rø

Hammerfest has been through what most places in the North hope for: the gas boom.
Hammerfest has won the lottery. Every year, as a result of the StatoilHydro LNG plant at Melkøya, the town will earn a whopping 19 million euro extra in tax income. A long-awaited renovation of schools is launched and a new arctic culture house just opened in the area previously occupied by the once great fishing industry.

Now, after some children’s diseases the LNG production is going full throttle. Being the first offshore development in the Barents Sea, the Snøhvit project is the showcase for the Norwegian petroleum industry in the Arctic. It is all prestige, said to be the beginning of a new era. Norway is the world's third largest exporter of oil and gas and the new foundation for the Norwegian welfare state is to be found in the north, or so the energy elite want us to believe.

Hammerfest used to be a commercial centre for the riches found in the arctic such as whale oil, seal skins and fish. Melkøya, the island where the LNG plant is located, was a place where fishermen resided. During the war the island hosted a German prisoner camp. Now it is occupied by an enormous plant that processes gas found 150 km out in the sea which it ships to Spain and the USA. It is the new Finnmark.

The development of the Snøhvit project has been a fly in fly out job. Even though 70% of the 220 in staff now running the operation are from Northern Norway, the construction of the Snøhvit project has in essence been executed by the petro establishment in Norway and only to some extent by local businesses. Out of the total cost of the Snøhvit project, only 2,8 billion NOK worth of contracts were given to Northern Norway, which amounts to roughly 5 percent of the national contracts. Some 1,5 billion NOK worth of contracts landed in Hammerfest.

But everything has changed. Hammerfest was living the Finnmark tristesse. People were moving away, buildings were in decay. Now, all of its troubles, it seems, have vaporized. The Snøhvit development has changed the city enormously. Population decline has stopped, municipal economy is significantly better. Even attitude amongst local youths is changing in Hammerfest. An increasing number now see a future in Finnmark. “The LNG plant is the pride of the community”, saysTherese Larsen, a local who has begun a career as a PR manager at the LNG plant.

During the construction phase real estate prices soared. A family with a 200 m2 house could see it rise by 1 million NOK in value. With practically no new dwellings built in the period between 2000 and 2002, the annual number has since 2003 been 80 with a peak of 230 in 2005. But as the plant is completed and further expansion is put on hold, the klondike is now over. There are signs of over-construction of housing and some apartments are standing empty. After Hammerfest has undergone the biggest urban transformation in Finnmark since World War 2 things seem to be mellowing out.

The survey team is guided through the newly opened Arctic Cultural Centre, the symbol of the new Hammerfest. Halls are named after local heroes (Only Bjørn Sundquist is not included in the prominent group.) The building, designed by Oslo based architects a-lab, tries to mimic the Northern light in its facade. Wrapped in a technicolored LED coating, the centre literally radiates the newly acquired energy of Hammerfest. After a tumultuous construction phase, the city has now entered the comfortable cash-in lull waiting for the next boom to come. Richer, and a little brighter.


Øystein Rø
He was born in Trondheim, Norway. He is an architect and co-founder of 0047. He has been working on High North issues since he wrote the Transborder Kirkenes Strategy in 2005-06 with Hans Jørgen Wetlesen. Rø is director of 0047 and secretary of Europan Norway. He lives and works in Oslo, Norway.