Home Improvement: Canada’s most famous boom town looks to the future
A Whole Foods in Fort McMurray? Developers aim to transform the city's downtown
by Max Fawcett
Like most boom towns, Fort McMurray is almost as rich in symbolism and metaphor as it is in the commodity that attracts people to it. But forget the Burtynsky-esque shots of the oil sands, its tailings ponds or any other aspect of the actual industry itself, because the community’s most telling – and important – metaphor can be found on Franklin Avenue just south of what passes for a downtown core. It’s there that you’ll find the city’s first stand-alone Starbucks location, which opened earlier this year, sitting across from a middle school that bears the name of Dr. Karl Clark, the man who effectively invented the oil sands. It’s as though Fort McMurray’s past and its future are staring at each other, across a road flush with the unending roadwork and construction activity that is bridging the divide between the two.
Illustration Pablo Iglesias
The Starbucks has been plagued by the predictable labour shortages that affect every non-energy sector business. A chalkboard sign near the entrance says they’re hiring baristas, a shift manager and a store manager – everything, it seems, except the customers themselves. But it also serves as a kind of beachhead for the brands and businesses the city needs more of, and an important barometer of the city’s evolution from a place where people live because they have to into one they actually want to.
That’s still a problem for local businesses, and it’s not one that higher salaries or bigger bonuses can solve. Ben Dutton, the CEO of the Casman Group and a director of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, says the city’s image problem makes it difficult to attract and retain people. “The reaction is that even if someone might be interested, their spouse isn’t,” he says. “The wife will say ‘I don’t care, I’m not moving to Fort McMurray.’ ” Ron Taylor, the executive director of City Centre McMurray, says the impact of that attitude is already being felt by industry. “The oil industry put us on notice a couple of years ago,” he says. “As they transition from construction to operating, the current level of job turnover – which is in excess of 45 per cent – is not sustainable. You can do that when you’re building things. You can’t do that when you’re operating things. And so we need to be able to, with industry, attract people to Fort McMurray to work these plants and maximize the benefit from the natural resources that we have here. To do that, we need to make it a place people want to come to.”
A Starbucks alone won’t do the job. What might is the project Taylor is overseeing, which is an ambitious long-term plan to transform the city’s downtown from a cluster of low-rise buildings, gas stations and liquor stores into a place where people can do more than just spend money. It includes plans for condominium buildings, upscale retail and even, if things break right, a Whole Foods. The project is underway, too, as the city has spent more than $30 million buying the land it needs (and expropriating the rest), while the once-iconic Oil Sands Hotel that sat at the corner of Main and Franklin Streets, across from an Esso Station and a Mr. Liquor in the heart of downtown, was torn down earlier this year. It’s already been replaced by construction hoarding that features splashes of colour, smiling children and optimistic slogans, the telltale signs of a real estate development.
Eventually, those hoardings will be replaced by mixed-use buildings that will look an awful lot like the ones you might find in neighbourhoods like Vancouver’s Yaletown or Calgary’s Eau Claire. “One of the things that makes places like Yaletown work is the mix – you have places where people work, places where people live and places where people can go out for a meal and some entertainment, all in one mixed-use district,” Taylor says. “It starts to create a sense of community, it assists with congestion and it’s sustainable, which is very important to young people today in terms of where they choose to live.” Mayor Melissa Blake sees it the same way. “Our demographic is very young – we have an average age of about 32. And when you look to the multiculturalism that we have, people coming from different countries, they have different expectations than your typical white picket fence scenario. We think there’s going to be an abundance of interest, as long as we create a quality development.”
Oh, and City Centre McMurray also includes – indeed, is anchored around – a new downtown arena. While the idea might make people in Edmonton flinch, Taylor is adamant that it’s a necessary investment in the community’s future. “Sports and entertainment centres are also defining buildings, and we’ve seen in cities across Canada and the United States and beyond just how important they are to solidifying downtown areas. Look at what the John Labatt Centre has done in London, Ontario, and what the arenas in cities like Montreal and Vancouver have done for those cities. Winnipeg, more recently – the arena on Portage Avenue is part of a revitalization strategy, and it’s been wildly successful.” It’s safe to say that Taylor thinks the outcome will be just as positive in Fort McMurray – and just as important in building the sense of urbanity and cosmopolitanism that he thinks is essential to its future.
If the city’s plans seem ambitious, that’s by design.
It’s also a reflection of the fact that, to date, the provincial government has struggled to provide the community with the resources and political support it needs to grow in a way that isn’t self-destructive. “Nobody can forecast our growth perfectly,” says Mike Walsh, a local real estate developer, “but we know we’ll have great growth for the next five to 20 years. It may, at times, accelerate or decelerate, but we know we have to plan for it. That’s where we need to be, and where we haven’t been.”
Mayor Melissa Blake has been trying to get the government to make the investments needed to facilitate that growth, but she says there’s only so much she – or anyone else in the community – can do. “The difficulty that the region has historically faced is that there’s so much competition for limited resources out of provincial funds,” she says. “Everybody’s priorities are more important to them than any others. But if you really look at the investment that happens here, we’ve been saying it for a decade: put in a dollar now and get 10 back in five years.” Ben Dutton agrees. “This is the source of your money. Why wouldn’t you invest here? The faster you expand the base of your income, which is royalties, the more you can spend elsewhere.”
The simple answer is that it’s not politically expedient. There are 25 MLAs from Calgary, 19 from Edmonton and just two from Fort McMurray. But Jeff Thompson, who ran for the PC nomination in the riding of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo (and was ultimately defeated by MLA Mike Allen), thinks it’s about more than just electoral math. “I think there’s still a project-based mentality, both within the structures of government as well as in our community. It says these projects are short term, and they’re going to go away. I remember when I first came here and started working for Syncrude, the plan on the books was that it would be done by the early 2000s. They’d fold up shop, move the equipment and be done – and I think, to some extent, that’s ingrained in many parts of government.” That was supposed to change, Thompson says, under Premier Alison Redford’s leadership. It hasn’t yet. “A few years ago, when Alison Redford took on the leadership of the party, she said that she wanted to see Fort McMurray become a place that people call home – a place that’s no different than Calgary or Edmonton, where people come to work, raise their families and enjoy a sustainable quality of life. We’re still a ways away from that.”
In the interim, it’s up to the local government to do the heavy lifting. It appears to be equal to that challenge, judging by the sheer scale of City Centre McMurray and the ambition behind it. The idea that condos and cafés will one day define the city’s downtown core requires a leap of faith nearly as great as the one that saw the oil sands transformed from a geological curiosity into a multibillion-dollar industry. It’s one that the city’s political leadership believes can – and must – be made.
But like that first leap of faith, this one’s not without its holdouts. One of the most prominent is Frances Jean, a local entrepreneur, author, community leader and the 83-year-old mother of MP Brian Jean. “The ordinary people who live in this town, who are major taxpayers and who have been here for a long time, are very opposed to some of the downtown development,” she says. Jean thinks the plan to bring a big city feel to the community she’s lived in for more than eight decades is flawed, and is informed more by the attitudes and inclinations of the people proposing it than the ones who will have to live in it once it’s built. “Ron Taylor is a nice man, but he’s from a big city,” she says. “He doesn’t know anything about Fort McMurray. People make big money here. Most people make over $150,000 a year. They have all the toys, they have their $80,000 trucks – do you think they’re going to take the bus?”
Jean doesn’t think much of the idea that there’s pent-up demand for condominiums in the downtown core. “Small condos are not selling because people can live in camp and get their recreation, their housing, everything, a free flight back home, and they’re really not interested in moving into the downtown.” She’s not alone on this point, either, or in her belief that the people drawing up the plans aren’t being realistic about the nature of the city they’re trying to change. “You can’t go vertically,” the Casman Group’s Ben Dutton says. “People who live in Fort McMurray are not the same type of person that might live in Vancouver or downtown Toronto. I don’t think they’re going to ride the bus a lot. People’s idea of a small, economical car is an F-150.”
And while Taylor insists plenty of public consultation was done on the project, Jean says that it was more about seeking a rubber stamp than genuine feedback. She points to the placement of the boat launch, a minor detail in the grand scheme of things but one that she thinks is telling. “After spending all of this money on consultants [who first suggested they place it at the Marine Park, then proposed it be built further up the Clearwater River], they came back to where we told them it should be – in the Snye [River], where it’s always been,” she says. “I love this town, and I’ll die here. But I don’t like what they’re doing to it. And the people don’t like it.”
Whether the people truly like City Centre McMurray or not remains to be seen, but it won’t be long before they get a chance to form their opinion about it. The arena, Taylor says, already has four “bona fide” private sector proponents responding to a request-for-proposal process, while improvements to waterfront and the creation of a public space called Jubilee Square could bear fruit before the end of next year. Other major components, including the construction of a footbridge to Macdonald Island and a new marina, will follow in due course. “It’s a 20-year project,” Taylor says. “We intend to complete the catalyst projects in the first 10 years of that, but you’ll start to see a difference in the first five years.”
They may already be seeing a difference, though, if the crowd at the Wood Buffalo Brewing Company is any indication. It’s five o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in late August – not exactly the high season, in other words – but the place is very nearly packed with customers. The brew pub, which opened earlier this year, looks like it’s been lifted lock, stock and barrel from a neighbourhood like Calgary’s 17th Avenue or Vancouver’s Yaletown. Its menu features duck confit sliders and pulled pork poutine, the outdoor patio facing onto Franklin Street is crammed with hip young things and it proudly brews its own beer using water drawn from nearby rivers. It even has a giant copper still that, if all goes according to plan, will be used to produce the first in-house spirits in all of Alberta.
In other words, it’s not part of your father’s Fort McMurray. Heck, it’s not even a part of your slightly older brother’s one. And according to manager and bartender Chris Peterson, that’s kind of the point. He’s a third-generation Fort McMurray resident who came back during the last boom in the mid-2000s. “It’s nice to finally have something that’s our own,” he says. “We’ve always had the Moxie’s and the Earls, but this is ours – it’s an original.” It’s also precisely the kind of place that people invested in the community’s future want to see more of in downtown Fort McMurray. In fact, they’re counting on it.