Then and Now
The long-term future for Fort McMurray looks bright. But the near-term? That’s a bit more complicated
by Max Fawcett
With a new arena, condominium developments and a completely reimagined waterfront, Fort McMurray is busy making plans for the arrival of tens of thousands of new residents over the next two decades. Unfortunately, it’s still struggling mightily to absorb the ones that are already there. Traffic, for example, is terrible in the summer because of the transportation infrastructure that’s constantly being built. It might be even worse in the winter, too, given that for all that construction there still isn’t enough transportation infrastructure to deal with all of the volume and what can happen to it when, for example, a truck carrying a 25 tonne module can’t make it up the Supertest Hill (a stretch of Highway 63 north of town near the Suncor oil sands plant with an eight per cent grade that can be treacherous in even the best weather) and ends up blocking the entire road for a few hours.
The housing market might be even worse. Yes, the province announced earlier this summer that it would make 22,000 hectares of land available to Fort McMurray in order to accommodate its ongoing growth. For a community whose population is expected to double by 2030, it will provide some much needed breathing room – eventually. But it’s still struggling to build the infrastructure it needs to make its existing supply of residential land accessible. Take the Parson Creek, a new subdivision that is zoned for more than 8,000 dwellings that could accommodate as many as 25,000 people. As it stands, though, it can only house a fraction of that, because the province has yet to build the transportation infrastructure (which includes a realignment of Highway 63 and the construction of approximately five kilometres of a new multi-lane route on Highway 686) that would connect it to the rest of the community.
That’s why Mike Walsh, a developer with Parwest, a local firm that’s helping the Fort McMurray Rotary Club develop a section of land in the area, wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the news about the additional package of land the province will one day sell to the city. “I think, in the long-run, it’s a very good thing,” he says. “It brings control of land closer to home, and puts it at one level of government rather than two. That being said, it is the long-run. This land is future land.” And as he points out, it’s current land that’s the real problem. “We have two areas for 40,000 people [the other is a development called Saline Creek] and we’re at a stand-still because we haven’t got transportation infrastructure for them. We’ve got water and sewer for both, and power into both, but no transportation. So when you say ‘how excited are you about this big land release?’ Well, it’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. But my first question is: who’s going to fund the infrastructure? Because land without infrastructure, as we’re learning today, means absolutely nothing.”
It also means skyrocketing real-estate prices. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation expects the average home to trade hands for nearly $650,000 in 2013, and according to Ben Dutton, whose company works in construction, that’s a dangerous place for the community to be. “The supply of land has been artificially constrained for so long that it’s pushed prices up to a point where we’re seeing refusal in the marketplace – people just saying they will not buy a house.” And if they do want to, he says, their choice is equally constrained. “The only lots out there right now, for example, are really big lots. And to justify the price you’d pay for that lot, you’d have to put a 2,000 square foot house on it, and right now the marketplace would tell you that’s worth $900,000. That’s really steep for a tract house.”
It’s not just the housing market that’s been hurt by the provincial government’s inability to keep up with the community’s growth, either. Jeff Thompson, the chair of the Fort McMurray public school board, says that the same thing has been happening in the school system for years. “We have a community called Eagle Ridge that’s 95 per cent built-out, and we’re now beginning to build schools in that area. Those schools aren’t going to open until 2014 or 2015, but the community itself is already there.” As a result, he says, the kids who live there will have to commute to the nearest school. “It’s one more thing, one more challenge that people have to overcome in their minds when they’re looking at Fort McMurray as place they’re moving their families to.”