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The Fort McMurray Forecast? You’ll Want To Stick Around… Trust Us

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For the most part, everyone was just pretty stoked about the potential to strike it rich. Well, not everyone. In history books and in folklore, there are records of people losing their minds: either from the extreme temperature, the crippling homesickness, or the gamble gone bust.

Sound familiar?

An untapped business market, a high-paying job, a rich husband: we all came to Fort McMurray in a quest for our proverbial goldmine. Maybe you were born here. No matter - your parents came here for the same reasons.

The thing about being a pioneer is that it isn't always pretty. Today, California is a beautiful state, known for its sprawling coast line, thriving technology and agricultural sectors, and of course Hollywood, where people still trek to meet their fame and fortune. But it wasn't always like that. Flash back 160 years ago, to when the place was dirty, dusty, and rugged.

It's a series of complaints that are often made in reference to our own city.

In exchange for getting in on the ground floor of success, we pay a price. The architecture is charmless, amenities-wise, we're woefully underserviced, and you can never tell if it's a pile of clothes lying in a lump along the Snye or if it's a human. Until the pile starts to move.

But then you see the Northern Lights for the first time, and it feels like watching God doodle in the sky. In the springtime, a breeze blows as you walk through the Birchwood Trails and millions of little leaves flutter high above you. Come fall, a co-worker invites you over for Thanksgiving dinner, though you just starting working with her last week. The next time your grandma calls, you tell her that maybe this place isn't such a shithole, after all.

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You're not alone. Each year, tens of thousands of people migrate to the region. The annual growth rate of Fort McMurray is over 7% - astronomical by any standard. There are certainly enough jobs to sustain the growing population. In fact, according to the national Construction Sector Council, we're going to face a dire shortage of skilled workers in coming years.

It's a vicious cycle. In order to keep business booming, we need a skilled and diverse workforce. In order to attract these people, we need to entice them with a quality of life that they can't get anywhere else. Yes, the hefty paycheques are incentive, but it's not enough, as indicated by the high turnover rate that most of our local employers face. This is the biggest challenge presented to city hall: create a world-class city to attract (and retain) a world-class work force and community.



Yes! Since 2001, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo grew 101%, and it's estimated that the population will double over the next twenty years. Look at it this way: on average, the oil sands produce 1.6 million barrels each day. By 2030 the output is estimated by some to be 7 million barrels per day." We'll need a lot more people in town to pull this off. The redevelopment of this community is a worthwhile endeavour, indeed.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the Fort McMurray Airport Authority, and the MacDonald Island Park Corporation are reacting swiftly and proactively with redevelopment and expansion plans to accommodate the upcoming boom. Each organization is limited with how far they can take their plans without the support and cooperation of the provincial and federal governments.

"Sometimes I wish I could blink my eyes, and wake up ten years later," says Mayor Melissa Blake. "The change is going to be extraordinary. Unfortunately, we can't fast forward - we have to fight the daily battles that will make this change happen. I'm so invigorated by the plans and the potential of what we'll be able to create. I'm excited that our children will get to experience the very best of what this region has to offer".

So stick around. Tough it out. Because in a few short years, Fort McMurray is going to be the best city in Canada. Hands down.



If you fall into the category of people that regularly attend Chamber of Commerce luncheons, then you've probably seen Glen Laubenstein's presentation, which serves as a high level overview of the City Centre Area Redevelopment Plan (in other words, a blueprint for the future of the downtown area).

For those who don't know, Laubenstein is the region's Chief Administrative Officer and he has a gleaming track record of success, having pulled off similar projects in other cities (he won the Award for Planning Excellence from the Canadian Institute of Planners in 2011). After Mayor Blake, he's the number two guy with his head on the chopping block here.

The $2 billion plan includes the development of Franklin Square. Phase one of the square is slated to open next fall (at the time this issue went to press, there was speculation in the community that the square will occupy the space where the closed-down Diggers sits). In the presentation, a photo of Toronto's Dundas Square (which is a cleaner, newer, and less grand version of New York's Time Square) is used to illustrate the idea of Franklin Square: an open space for civic engagement, an iconic public meeting space that represents the heartbeat of downtown area. "The building of Franklin Square will spur private sector investment in this community, "explains Carol Theberge, Executive Director of Community Development with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. "The City Centre Area Redevelopment Plan is our strategy to jump-start private sector development," she says. "Once Franklin Square is complete, you suddenly present a very attractive option to developers: imagine an all-season market right next to the square, alongside brand new retailers and restaurants - that's our goal."

Why downtown? Because the greatest cities in the world have thriving urban centres – think London, Tokyo, New York. Excitement, innovation, and creativity: these are not the hallmarks of the suburbs.

Besides, with the population exploding, it's estimated that by 2030, approximately 22% of Fort McMurray's population will reside downtown, to say nothing of the non-oil sands businesses that will develop in the area.

A higher density city centre likely means taller buildings, which is more attractive to investors. Early projections suggest up to a $10 billion investment by the private sector.

So, what will this high density area look like? The riverfront will be developed (think condos and housing mixed with trails and useable recreation space. Laubenstein's presentation uses Ottawa's Rideau Canal as a point of inspiration). "The Snye and Clearwater Rivers will come alive with life," says Theberge.

MacDonald Avenue will become the hub of nightlife and entertainment, while Main Street will be reserved for boutiques and cafes. Several major streets will be designated as "green corridors" which means significant landscaping and the creation of bicycle lanes, plus many other enhancements to encourage green and active living. "New buildings will be required to meet Gold LEED standards," says Mayor Blake.

The list of scheduled developments is exciting: a new Civic Centre (Phase 1 will be completed by 2016), a Performing and Arts Centre, a sports arena, a public arts program, an improved transit corridor along Franklin Avenue, and an Aging in Place facility (the RMWB is working closely with a group of local seniors to select a vendor for this project).

"The Aging in Place facility is a great example of community collaboration. As the senior population of our region grows, so does the need for a program like this. We're working with our seniors to create a place where they can retire. They built a life here – we don't want them to have to move away. We want this community to be liveable for everyone," says Theberge. "Fort McMurray is no longer a place where you just come to work and then leave to settle elsewhere."



"I remember reading an airport document before my first day here, and it said 'please do not bring your trucks to the airport'. That was a pretty good indicator of priority number one," laughs Scott Clements, President and CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority. "We immediately set about creating 200 additional parking spots, which gave us a 1092 spots. We will have over 2000 electric stalls at the new facility."

This seems to be the modus operandi at FMAA: do what you can now, while pursuing big plans for the future.

There are the usual complaints about the airport: it's impossibly small, there is only one restaurant (to say nothing of the concessions), and the gray-on-gray colour scheme provides a rather Eyeore-esque start to your trip. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that since Clements started at the airport in 2009, he's been steadily implementing improvements while overseeing a massive, $258 million expansion.

The new airport isn't scheduled to open until April 2014. Rather than allow the existing facilities die a slow death until the improvements are scheduled, the Fort McMurray Airport Authority is dedicated to making as many necessary changes as possible, in the meantime.

Example? The Hold Room. "This was the worst service that we had. We couldn't wait until the expansion was complete to fix this. We had to do what we could, with what we could afford. We doubled the size of the space. We added WiFi. We installed new carpet, seats, and televisions," explains Clements. If the difference in the holding space is noticeable (and it is), then the completed expansion plans are going to be nothing short of spectacular.

Think of 2.5 Canadian football fields. That's how big the new terminal is going to be. And, because it's going to be an international airport (look for direct flights to Mexico to start December 2012 with twice weekly direct flights to Las Vegas starting as early as Spring 2013), the facility will include separate levels for Arrivals and Departures. It will also include a combination of sixteen eateries and shops, and two full service restaurants. "Very familiar brand names" will be on site, as will a new gas station. What's more, there's the upcoming announcement of a four-star hotel to be built next to the terminal. The hotel is rumoured to boast underground parking and a heated pedway connecting to the airport terminal.

To complement the new sleek design, there are plans to establish a "bold and iconic" art program within the terminal. "The intention is create a sense of place. That will be reflected in the design, decor, art, and landscaping. We're not entirely sure what the art program looks like yet. We'll hire the experts and then find the money to make it happen," promises Clements.

And find money, he will. To date, Clements and his team have secured $198 million with $25 million of that coming from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. "What is truly remarkable to me is the great relationship between the municipality and the airport. They didn't just contribute $25 million. They've also resolved to help us get provincial and federal funding. Beyond that, they've passed a by-law to minimize our municipal taxation. I have to give credit where it's due, and that lies with Mayor Blake and Glen Laubenstein. They share our vision to make this the premier airport in the country," says Clements. ""We're the fastest growing airport in North America.. By the time the expansion is complete, we anticipate close to one million passengers per year. The current terminal was designed to handle only 250,000 customers annually. We're simply keeping up with demand - and that's why it's so important to have the support of our governments."

Spurring this growth will be the development of Saline Creek, a nearby land-release area that will house an estimated 20,000 people within the next ten years. "That's a community in itself, when you think about it," notes Clements. "This is why we've situated one of the full service restaurants in the pre-security area. We want the airport to become a destination. This isn't just our vision - investors have faith in this model as well. There's been a lot of interest expressed in this project.

"The City Centre Area Redevelopment plans are mindboggling. Fort McMurray won't just be considered a work camp. It's going to be a place to live and work and build a life. What's going to be your first and last contact with the city? The airport."



It's not until I mention that I'm from Hamilton, that Tim Reid casually mentions that he played for the Hamilton Tiger Cats. "It was only for three games, mind you," he cautions, "but in that time, I saw that Hamilton is a great example of how sports can bring together a city. On game days, starting two kilometers away from the park, guys are in their yard, holding signs that offer a parking space in their wives' flower beds for $10 - there's just no parking at the field. The stadium itself isn't the greatest, and it's located in a hardscrabble part of town. But when those lights come on, you look up and all the seats are filled. It's just magic. I think what it comes down to, is this: people work hard - very hard - for what they have. At the end of the day, they need something to be proud of - something to cheer for."

Soon, Fort McMurray will certainly have something to be proud of.

The conceptual sketches for the expansion plans at Mac Island are incredible. If all goes according to plan, the already stunning Mac Island will become one the most enviable recreation facilities in the world. It'll be like the time the prettiest girl in school got boobs: beautiful to mega-beautiful.

The list of proposed additions are almost too numerous to put into proper paragraph form (the detailed plan, a 50 page document, can be found on the Mac Island website). Here's what the expansion looks like, in a nutshell:

  • An outdoor field and events venue, designed to meet Canada Games hosting standards. This opens up Mac Island to a countless number of hosting opportunities. Estimated to seat around 20,000..
  • Shared space and conference centre. Below-market rent rates for up to 40 local not-for-profits. Will include a kilometer of public art space, expanded child-minding services, conference facilities and restaurants to serve event-goers.
  • Baseball/softball stadium. To facilitate a potential professional franchise. Seating for 2,300 plus an additional 5,500 on the grass berms. 
  • Pedestrian connection between Mac Island and the new Civic Centre (a walkway over the Snye).
  • Themed parks. One to feature leading-edge play equipment, another to serve as a water park.
  • Outdoor climbing wall.
  • Rowing centre and marina, for non-motorized boats.
  • Badminton Centre and multi-use Field House.

"Anybody can put up a building," says Reid. "What we're trying to facilitate is memories. The more positive experiences you have in a place, the greater your affinity for it. The expansion gives us a chance to do something special - it allows us to create great moments for people. Just think; it's a hot summer night. You just had a great dinner downtown and now you're walking on the bridge across the Snye to get to a ballgame at Mac Island. You've got your girlfriend or your kid in tow. You can smell popcorn in the air and you can hear a crowd in the distance. The excitement is palpable. You just know it's going to be a great night. Those are the sort of memories that make us who we are."

And those are the memories that will make Fort McMurray home.



I dislike networking events. You're forced to put on uncomfortable shoes and I always feel as if my suit jacket is wearing me, instead of vice versa. Plus, there's the small talk. By the end of the evening, my eyebrows ache from being constantly raised in feigned interest.

Here, I spare you the agony of a room full of strangers and the veggie tray disguised as "light dinner." Meet the fascinating leaders at the helm of the region's most ambitious era of transformation.

Melissa Blake, Mayor, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

If previous mayors had streets named after them (ie; Penhorwood, Reidel, Hardin), then it might be fitting that we dub the entire downtown core "Blaketown", for the redevelopment of the city centre will be the crowning jewel of her administration.

Now into her third term, The Globe and Mail once referred to her as the "matriarch of the oil sands." However, it's a title that doesn't quite do her justice. "Matriarch" is just too old school for this progressive, whip-smart, and confident leader. Case in point? Her Twitter profile picture. Instead of featuring an official press photo, she offers her followers a glimpse into a more personal side of her. Go follow her on Twitter to see the picture.

Decades after Gloria Steinem observed that "you never hear men asking how to balance their careers and their families," Mayor Blake seems intent on knocking both out of the park. Come weekends, you'll find her at the pool, at the library, or at any community event geared toward kids, with her two young sons in tow. You see, that's the difference between a matriarch and a mom. Matriarchs are for the white-gloves-and-pearls- wearing set. Moms get their hands dirty, and Mayor Blake has proven, time and again, that she's willing to roll up her sleeves and get right in there.

Scott Clements, President & Chief Executive Officer, Fort McMurray Airport Authority

In any given gym, on any given day, there is a septuagenarian who can kick your ass. He easily outpaces you on the stationary bike and he laps you on the track. This is Scott Clements.

Upright and eloquent, Clements is a numbers guy, with a mind for detail and problem-solving. "I thrive on it," he says "I seek it out. I'm happiest when I'm in the midst of finding a solution. That's how I was taught to think." Dates, percentages, sales figures: as we chat about plans for the airport expansion, he lists figures as if he's reading from a pie-chart. This, coupled with his military background, makes him a perfect fit for the world of precision and order that is aviation.

He's had an exemplary career, and it's obviously one that he has trouble leaving behind. "I don't know that I can," he explains. So, while most of his former colleagues are retiring or settling into cushy consultant roles, Clements is taking on one of the biggest challenges of his career, with the expansion of the Fort McMurray Airport. It's nothing he can't handle though: he's the past President and CEO of the Edmonton Airport Authority (a ten year stint in which he oversaw a successful $265 million expansion), served two years as Commander of Canada's Air Force (after rising through the ranks to become Lt. General), has a Masters degree in Public Administration plus an honourary Doctor of Laws degree from Royal Roads University, and was named Alberta Venture Magazine "Top 50 Most Influential People" two years in a row.

Tim Reid, Chief Operating Officer, MacDonald Island Park Corporation
"The janitor matters most."

It's a line Tim Reid repeated often during his TedX speech about teamwork (it's still on youtube). "As long as the janitor is committed to doing the best job that he can, your organization has a chance to be successful. When the game is on the line, it's not the CEO that matters. Whether you win or lose, it doesn't come from the top. It comes from the bottom - because those are the people that matter." Interesting, coming from Reid, who serves as Chief Operating Officer of MacDonald Island Park Corporation.

Though the janitor matters most, being the COO has gotta be a stressful job. Reid takes it all in stride. "Amanda, that's my assistant, runs our world up here," he says, gesturing around his office. "She asks, 'Can't you ever be serious?' Well, of course I can. But, as I remind my staff every chance I get, we are lucky to work at the place where people go to have fun. That's a privilege. Besides, if I wanted to be serious, I'd have to get a real job," he jokes.

He's being modest. Considered somewhat of a wunderkind amongst his peers (he's only 34 years old), Reid is credited with turning the fate of MacDonald Island Park around. He stepped into his current role during a time when the construction of MacDonald Island was so far behind and so over-budget, that the naysayers thought the project should be scrapped. Today, Mac Island is a glittering example of the modern recreation facility and Reid is quick to defer credit to his staff and board, whom he describes as "...the best in the country...second to none..."

The feeling is mutual. "Tim Reid is dignity personified," muses a former Mac Island employee, "he believes in people before they even believe in themselves. That's the mark of a true leader. That's a quality of someone capable of real change."


A case for the monorail

Actually, it turns out that a monorail is not what we need, according to Bombardier Canada (it's not appropriate for our harsh winters: the monorail runs on tires very similar to personal vehicles). What we should be setting our sights toward is a Sky Train, similar to the one in Vancouver. The price is steep ($50-$75 million per kilometer), but anyone waiting in traffic upwards of three hours would agree that it's a worthwhile expense.

Here, we present our case:

  1. It's fast, travelling at just over a kilometer a minute. That might not sound overly impressive, but consider that this is continuous and uninterrupted travel (save for stops).
  2. It's environmentally friendly. The incentive to get home faster, and at a guaranteed time, will encourage drivers to take the train rather than their own vehicles. The Sky Train is powered by electricity – not gas. 
  3. Improved quality of life for site workers. It's hard enough to get up in time to catch a 5 a.m. bus and then arrive home past 7 p.m. A Sky Train will give site workers some of their day back. 
  4. Fewer drivers on the road equal fewer accidents.
  5. Fewer accidents equal less traffic congestion, in both directions of Hwy 63.

While we're at it…

While we're talking about change and innovation in the region, why not consider:

  • An air tram that runs from Thickwood and Timberlea, down to Mac Island
  • A glass skyscraper farm would mean local and (hopefully) less expensive produce
  • Mandatory rooftop gardens – pretty and energy efficient
  • Solar-heated bus stops
  • Start-Up Alley: an alleyway dedicated to food trucks and very small businesses

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