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Fort McMurray 2015: My Story and Ours

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This article is far from the one I intended to write when the fine publisher of my favourite McMurray magazine, Your McMurray Magazine, asked me to on a crisp -32˚C day last winter over lunch at Wood Buffalo Brew Co.

Some of you may know me as the Manager of Communications and Advancement for “Mac Island,” or what is officially called the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo, or the RRC. I wanted to get that out of the way. What you’ll read next does in many ways stem from my experiences at MacDonald Island Park, and the new facility in Anzac.

I was supposed to write a tidy feature on Fort McMurray 2015, centering on key events coming to a venue near you before you know it. I did what any half-decent 31-year-old public relations professional does: I built a polished narrative. I covered all of my bases. I engaged with the most important stakeholders. I focused on a positive message or theme with which you could easily identify or feel. That article has been completely scrapped.

You’ve experienced this approach if you’ve ever attended an announcement or community engagement session at MacDonald Island over the past three years. Thing is, you’ve experienced it elsewhere, too, many times over. The approach I use is simple: I craft a story.

Instead of giving you the traditional PR-laden rundown of Fort McMurray 2015, I’m going to share a story of a 28-year Nova Scotian that moved here from Ottawa in 2011, and what 2015 means to me. This is not a corporate story, or even a community one. It’s my Fort McMurray 2015 story.

My first three hours in Fort McMurray remain a microcosm for the city that is, the opportunities we cradle, and the challenges we face.

I arrived in Fort McMurray for the first time just after 10:00 pm on Friday, September 9, 2011, and like many of us, my first experience with my new home was with the old Fort McMurray Airport Terminal.

I was stunned. I had heard about the infrastructure deficit, lack of facilities and retail options. Again, forgive me, but when I made it outside to Ben McCully’s vehicle (the only non-truck in sight), I said this to the old friend and former Fort McMurray radio announcer, event host and social media provocateur that had sold me so passionately on Fort McMurray:

“Is this a temporary terminal? Don’t 100,000 people live here? Isn’t there a lot of travel in and out?”

“Yes and no,” he said, laughing. “They’re building a new one, should open in three years...but that is the Fort McMurray Airport!”

I paused. What did I get myself into, I thought.

Before I could respond, I was taken aback. Northern Lights in full force. I was blown away.

Growing up in Nova Scotia, literally steps (or a stone’s throw, in Bluenoser parlance) from the Atlantic Ocean, the Northern Lights were something from a textbook and this fancy (another East Coast-ism) thing called the Internet. They weren’t real. The Northern Lights were part of First Nations and Northern Canadian lore. They belonged in a Canadian Heritage Minute. Not anymore, not for me.

The Northern Lights were quickly replaced on the drive into downtown, or what Ben was calling “what will be the new, re-developed City Centre.”

“We’re going to Bailey’s Pub. I’m hosting Karaoke. Just like old times,” he said.

(Ben and I were friends from university days in Halifax, and young professional days in Ottawa. By chance, we had ended up in the same city for the third time, and what I just recounted was the first few minutes of that third time. He introduced me to my ex-fiancee in 2002 and I attended his first wedding in 2005. Let’s just say things are different now!)

I rarely go to Bailey’s Pub. I’m a Tavern on Main guy. But within my first few hours here, I stepped inside the doors there. Before I walked in, I noticed something called the Boomtown Casino.

“We’re downtown, right?” I said.

“Yeah man,” he said.

“Fort McMurray has its casino downtown and it’s called the Boomtown Casino…” I trailed off. “Will this be part of this City Centre redevelopment?”

“I’m not sure. I haven’t heard much about it. I just know it’s happening,” he said.

I walked in to the old Bailey’s Pub. It looked like the Emporium from Dazed and Confused. The only thing it was missing was an “Alright, Alright, Alright” from a guy ‘working for the city’.

To make a long story short, my main memory from the night, outside of the feeling of the place, was the manager, James, who was born and raised here. He welcomed me to Fort McMurray with open arms, took care of me until we left. On the way out, we exchanged a handshake.

“I hope you’ll see the real Fort McMurray. The people here are great, and it’s getting better all the time. It’s not what people outside of here say it is.”

I didn’t tell him that in two days I was about to begin a journey at ‘Mac Island’ that is still going strong. I might be wrong (a very, very common occurrence), but I think if I asked James he’d say the Island was part of the ‘real’ Fort McMurray he was talking about.

What I felt in my first three hours in Fort McMurray back in September, 2011 is very much connected to what is brewing around us just three years later.

I shared that story for two reasons: To be honest and open about my perceptions of Fort McMurray early on and to point out our progress is real and happening every day.

Let’s look back at where I went on that dry, warm, Northern Lights-lit late summer night: The old airport and the old Bailey’s Pub. Both of those places don’t exist anymore.

The new, impressive and award-winning Fort McMurray International Airport Terminal opened to the public on June 9, 2014 – on September 9, 2011 it was just a passing comment in conversation.

Shortly after my visit with James, Bailey’s underwent a massive renovation and upgrade. I’m told it was in the seven-figure range, but don’t quote me. It might have the best hardwood floors in the city. I never set foot in the ‘Emporium’ again…

2015 isn’t a vision or dream. It’s a reality and it’s already happening.

I can’t talk about 2015 without a story about Shell Place.

My first day at MacDonald Island Park was Monday, September 12, 2011. My only scheduled meeting that day was the first community engagement session for what was then called the MacDonald Island Park Expansion Project.

I met my future boss, Tim Reid, then the COO of MacDonald Island Park Corporation, now the CEO of the new Regional Recreation Corporation. I learned it would be my role to support our effort in bringing a recommendation for the project to RMWB Council, hopefully in July, 2012.

The best leaders are very clear, among other qualities. Mr. Reid, I learned very quickly, is as transparent (I dislike this term, but it fits here) as they come. Following the first session, we met on next steps, and on incorporating me into the team.

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “Our recommendation to Council will be based on community collaboration and engagement. We will not move forward until we have listened to and received direction from community members. They will drive our process – we just need to facilitate the conversation – good or bad.”

Now, obviously that’s not exactly what he said. My memory isn’t that good. But that was definitely the message that day. And we have developed our community engagement approach – for Shell Place and the Northside Community Recreation Centre – based on those principles.

You may know the rest of my story. In our final round of community engagement for what became Shell Place, 87 per cent of participants chose Option 2 (or full build out that includes the Baseball/Softball Tournament Centre you see coming out of the ground today). We then recommended the community’s choice to RMWB Council, which approved the ‘Think Big’ project unanimously on July 10, 2012.

On September 15, 2012, Mayor Blake broke ground at the helm of a golden-bucketed SMS Equipment Komatsu excavator. On October 20, 2012, Shell Canada and its joint venture partners, Chevron and Marathon, announced it was title partner for our expansion project. It was now Shell Place and we were off and running.

Shell Place opens in 2015.

I won’t delve too far into the amenities of Shell Place, and while it is a venue being developed in real time to meet the needs of today and the growth of tomorrow, it says a lot about who we are right now, ironically.

Shell Place features a heavy dose of community recreation. SMS Equipment Stadium, the aforementioned Baseball/Softball Tournament Centre (Baseball Stadium, one premier softball diamond, and three recreational softball diamonds), Field House, Badminton Centre, the Molson Outdoor Rink and more.

Shell Place promises to become be a premier downtown hub for community events, concerts, celebrations, meetings and conferences. The Nexen Stage is built to shine like the Northern Lights. There are suites that double as meeting rooms, flexible ballrooms and meeting spaces and conference rooms. All at the backdrop of our downtown rivers and the Boreal forest, Miskanaw Golf Course, and the bustle and brilliance of the Suncor Community Leisure Centre.

Shell Place is sustainable, both economically and environmentally, as Fort McMurray’s first LEED Gold building. It is tied into our Water Treatment and Heat Recovery Facility, an RMWB pilot project that leverages world-class technology to end our use of the Athabasca and Clearwater for irrigation at Miskanaw Golf Course, while using recovered energy to help heat facilities at MacDonald Island.

Shell Place enhances access to nature and recognizes and celebrates our Aboriginal history and teachings with the TOTAL Interpretive Trail. Built along the Athabasca River, the TOTAL Interpretive Trail will be highlighted by Aboriginal cultural nodes and give us all direct access to our natural surroundings just steps away from downtown.

Shell Place delivers a great location for our social profit organizations to thrive. The Shell Place Social Profit Shared Space will be managed by the United Way of Fort McMurray.

I could continue. Shell Place will change the way we experience downtown, the existing Suncor Community Leisure Centre and the re-developed Miskanaw Golf Club, which hits completion by 2015. Shell Place offers major opportunity to host bigger and better major local, provincial, national and international events of all kinds, building on the success our region has cultivated over decades.

Most importantly, Shell Place is about partnerships. Shell Place is a project funded by the RMWB, brought to life by the community and bolstered by over 20 corporate and community partnerships. We just get to open the doors.

What matters is what it can be I just shared what I think about Shell Place. What matters is what it can be, though.

Simone Marler, one of my favourite people in Fort McMurray, and the Communications Manager for Shell Albian Sands, will tell you Shell Place is about community. I agree with her 100 per cent. Thing is, I also believe it’s about building and having fun and creating great memories.

Shell Place will act as an actual catalyst in the real sense of the term, not in marketing-speak. It will force us to think again about what we can do, and I don’t intend this to be a call for another round of visioning sessions and roundtable discussions. I mean what we can and should do and how we can get it done.

This takes me back to my first day working at MacDonald Island and that first community engagement session for the expansion project. It matters how we build and how we engage. The destination is ultimately the goal, but if our journey focuses too much on bricks, mortar and money instead of on our people, we’ll never be alive and having fun in the way we deserve to be, in 2015 or otherwise.

Simply put, if we think about how we build bridges instead of a bridge itself for a minute we’ll be in good shape.

2015 is a step forward in the evolution of our region, and the following is not intended to be comprehensive. That said, as a footer I’d like to highlight a just few key events part of Fort McMurray 2015…

Grand Slam of Curling, Elite 10
March 18-22, 2015

  • Broadcast across Canada on Sportsnet live from CNRL Arena 2 at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre, this is a new event featuring the world’s best men’s curling teams and builds on last year’s Grand Slam of Curling, the National presented by Syncrude.
  • Fun fact: Not so much a fact, but a rumour. Remember the Northern Classic? Would it possible to produce world-class curling outside at Shell Place, under the Nexen Stage, broadcast live on Sportsnet? We’ll see.

Tim Hortons Canadian Ringette Championships
March 29-April 4, 2015

  • 2,000 athletes from across the country descend on Wood Buffalo for a national championship event sure to build ambassadors and cement our reputation as an emerging sport tourism destination. We beat out Calgary and Halifax to win the bid, so you know.
  • Fun fact: The event is truly regional, with games scheduled for the Suncor Community Leisure Centre, Casman Centre and Frank Lacroix Arena in Fort McMurray, the new Anzac Recreation Centre presented by Nexen Energy and at the Fort McKay Arena.

Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup
April/May, 2015

  • The Fort McMurray Oil Barons will host the best Junior ‘A’ hockey teams from Western Canada at Casman Centre in spring, 2015. The top two teams advance to the RBC Cup National Junior ‘A’ Championship.
  • Fun fact: This is the biggest hockey tournament in the region since the Oil Barons hosted – and won – the RBC Cup and became national champions back in 2000.

The Northern Kickoff presented by Shell Albian Sands
June 10-13, 2015

  • The four-day community celebration will act the official opening of Shell Place and culminate with the most Northern game in CFL history when the Edmonton Eskimos host the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a pre-season game on June 13 at SMS Equipment Stadium. Full event schedule and tickets at
  • Fun fact: 5,222 permanent seats and suites sold out to the game in just over four hours, prompting a partnership with Aluma Systems that has increased seating capacity to 15,000.

FC Edmonton v TBD
Date TBD, 2015

  • Members of the North American Soccer League (NASL), which includes teams from New York, Atlanta and Tampa Bay, FC Edmonton has committed to playing a regular season game at SMS Equipment Stadium at Shell Place in 2015 and 2016. Date and opponent will be released in fall, 2014.
  • Fun fact(s): When FC Edmonton takes the pitch at Shell Place, it will be the first regular season professional sports contest in Wood Buffalo history. Long-time resident Curtis J. Phillips is Honourary Chair for the event.

2015 Wood Buffalo Western Canada Summer Games
August 7-16, 2015

  • The 19-event, multi-sport showcase of some of the best young athletes in Western Canada is a prime opportunity to set the tone for national events, build ambassadors and put Wood Buffalo on the map in a positive light.
  • Fun fact: This event was the first one on this list that was secured, back in 2011.

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