Willow Square: An Update
When shovels hit the ground in April for the Willow Square Continuing Care Centre, our seniors will finally have the needed options to remain in this community rather than being forced to move away from family and friends.
“Now they will be able to continue to call Fort McMurray home,” states Tany Yao, MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo and Shadow Minister for Health.
“I look forward to watching the progress of the construction and the opening of Willow Square with enthusiasm.
“I am proud of the seniors in our community who never gave up and want them to know their persistence has paid off.”
Brian Jean, MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, called it a “great day for our community and an even better day for the seniors of Wood Buffalo.”
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott describes the announcement as “an exciting time for the community, especially our seniors.
“The Willow Square Continuing Care Centre offers an opportunity for residents who have been key to the growth and development of our community to remain here as they retire and age.
While the development has been a dream for many in this region for a long time, he notes, “This is significant to me on a personal level. During my time as local MLA, I was pleased to help acquire the land from the federal government so this project could move forward.”
As welcome as the announcement is, it’s still one greeted with cautious optimism by some seniors.
Joan Furber, president of the Golden Years Society, admitted there was some skepticism because this project has been promised before. Funding has been promised then disappeared and the location has been promised then changed, she explained.
“We would like to see a hole in the ground and construction started then we won’t be so skeptical.”
However, that said, Furber is more confident this time.
“I truly believe that we will be getting our long-term care centre on Willow Square.
“This project will mean our local seniors won’t have to leave town when they reach a certain point in life when they should be able to stay in their community to be with family and friends,” she said. “It’s what seniors deserve. It’s what many other Alberta communities have and it’s way past time we had it too.”
It’s her hope some seniors who had to leave town to receive needed care, can come home once Willow Square is complete.
The seniors of Fort McMurray have been fighting to get long-term care here for more than a quarter of a century, since at least 1989 when a Fort McMurray Today article spoke of a report highlighting the need for a long-term facility after nearly 100 people were identified as needing it.
“We at Golden Years took up the fight for Willow Square about seven years ago,” recalled Furber.
“No seniors should ever have to fight like we did for better care. It’s something that should have always been here. As a community, we should be ashamed of not having a facility long before now. The next phase we need is an aging in place facility and we are hoping that with the help of Wood Buffalo Housing and the municipally this will become a reality also.”
The February 2 announcement gave Furber cause to believe that the provincial government truly listened to local seniors.
“But it took a change in government to make it happen,” she says. “We thank our current MLAs Brian and Tany for helping us, and all of us at Golden Years would like to thank everyone in town for supporting and never giving up on our vision for Willow Square.”
For years, Willow Square has been a pivotal issue in local seniors’ care.
In 2009, then Fort McMurray MLA Guy Boutilier was kicked out of the PC Caucus for criticizing his government for removing the $35 million announced in 2008 for Willow Square from the budget.
He greeted this newest announcement with satisfaction, saying he was happy for the seniors and pleased the provincial government listened to them in keeping the original downtown location for the facility.
“One of my proudest moments as MLA was standing up for our seniors as they built our community and province.”
In the years following that, the former government moved the proposed facility from downtown to Parsons Creek which upset local seniors who described that location as isolated, too far away from all needed services.
Willow Square, located in the heart of the original townsite, had always been the preferred site; a centralized location across the street from the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.
Yao will point out that living in an environment that promotes a social network, where frequency of contact with children, parents and neighbours influences health in a positive fashion.
Additionally, with the opening of Willow Square, continuing care residents at Northern Lights can move into the more appropriate facility freeing up needed hospital beds.
When Jean was elected in 2015, one of his first orders of business after becoming Opposition Leader was to write to Premier Rachel Notley successfully requesting nothing further take place on Parsons Creek until a full review of the decision to move the facility there was undertaken.
In the summer of that year, Jean and Yao received the information that the former provincial government had used as rationale to move the facility to Parsons Creek. That review highlighted discrepancies in stakeholder support for that location.
While Jean was successfully able to refute them all, Yao made a presentation to RMWB Mayor and Council in October 2015 stating Willow Square is the only place seniors wanted a long-term care facility.
The report he presented came after reviewing over 40 documents, studying demographic trends, services in other municipalities and past inter-government correspondence.
“I came to the inescapable conclusion that our seniors have been right all along, that Willow Square is the right place to build a continuing care facility.”
Soon after, along with the unwavering support from the Golden Years Society, past members of the Health Advisory Committee, Advisory Council on Aging and the municipality, the province announced in November 2015 Fort McMurray’s long-term care facility was moving from Parsons Creek back to the original Willow Square location.
“We all know the downtown location is the best for this development,” states Yao.
“Building a continuing care facility in the heart of Fort McMurray is the right decision,” added Jean.
“Although it may take longer to build, doing it right the first time was the wish of the community.”
Construction is to take two years, completing in late 2019 or early 2020. The proposed opening date is spring 2020.
The total project budget is $110-million funded entirely by the province.
The province has said this centre will be designed and operated specifically to provide both a home and needed medical services and programs for seniors and younger physically disabled adults.
The centre will have the capacity for up to 144 spaces to deliver various levels of supportive living plus long-term and palliative care.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) will operate the new facility and deliver a number of programs and services including main street services such as a café, library, chapel and auditorium; home care; support services; and resident spaces.
“This state of the art facility will offer care options that truly enhance the experience and expectations of local seniors as they age,” says Scott.
“The architectural renderings depict a beautiful setting that provides a home-like space that is both open and modern. Located in the heart of the city, seniors and their families will enjoy the convenience of a walkable neighbourhood with easy access to all the amenities.”
Currently pegged at about 3,000, the local senior’s population is growing. By 2044, AHS is projecting approximately 17,000 seniors will be calling Fort McMurray home.
Furber says she also likes what she sees in the design of Willow Square.
“I like that it goes up. The residents will have a nice view of the city.”
Will she live there when the time comes?
“Absolutely, I would live in Willow Square,” she stated.
“When my time comes, it’s going be great to know that my family will not have to send us out of town. We will be in a great facility and taken care of in the town that we love and have no desire to leave.”
The following additional information on the Willow Square project has been provided by Alberta Infrastructure Minister Sandra Jansen’s office in answer to questions provided by
Your McMurray Magazine.
Seniors are cautiously optimistic about Willow Square actually going ahead given past false starts. Should they be concerned shovels won’t be in the ground in the spring? Given this project has been announced in the past, what made this project a priority for this government?
Work is already taking place on site. Geotechnical work is underway, and piling and underground utility work is expected to begin in April. We continue to live up to our promises. We said we would build this continuing care centre and we are doing just that. A continuing care centre in Fort McMurray is long overdue, and we’re delighted to have shovels in the ground this spring.
Why a Quebec-based builder?
We completely understand concerns about selecting local firms – because creating jobs is our top priority. The successful proponent team for the design and construction of The Willow Square Continuing Care Centre contractor is Pomerleau Inc. and S2 Architecture. Their bid was accepted after a fair, transparent and open competitive procurement process. Interprovincial trade agreements allow for firms from across Canada to bid on projects. While based in Quebec, Pomerleau Inc. has an office in Calgary. S2 Architecture is an Alberta firm with offices in Calgary and Edmonton. Contracts are awarded based on several factors, including design, price, quality and suitability to the project. We will always be focused on creating good jobs for Albertans, but can’t ignore those other factors. We want to make sure we get the best overall outcome for people in the community.
Is there capacity for the facility to be expanded in the future should demand call for it?
The project does include 36 rooms shelled-in for future development and we will be in close contact with local stakeholders so that we can keep abreast of the needs of the community.
What is the projection about the next step of having a dedicated aging in place facility for Fort McMurray?
The Alberta government is focused on building the Continuing Care Centre and other public services that all Albertans rely on. The Aging-In-Place development will be overseen and developed by local stakeholders.