Michael Jesso's Fabulous, Derailed
Can Downtown Be Saved?
Can the downtown be saved? That was the question on everyone’s mind this past summer when major stand-out businesses like Wood Buffalo Brewing Company and both Prime locations closed. Then, a real shocker came when Bob Barrett Men’s Apparel, a store that has been running in Fort McMurray since the early 1980’s, announced it was closing and current owner Bob Carrothers was retiring.
In the past year alone we have lost the Kozy Korner, Asti, Mom’s Kitchen, Atmosphere (mall), Chez Max, Twice is Nice, Solo Liquor, and as I write this I’m being told Habitual Sports has just closed its doors as well. While this all casts a huge veil on the current climate of the downtown, the entire city is now at risk of losing more business, and one only has to look to the past to see the real answers.
Fort McMurray started to grow in the late 60’s, as G.C.O.S (what would later become Suncor) was the only oil company operating in the area. When Syncrude began construction in 1973 a boom started that hit the city with growth that had never been seen. The downtown quickly filled with mobile home parks on the current sites of Tamarack Village, Save On Foods and Home Hardware/Syncrude Sport and Wellness.
Syncrude needed people, and somewhere for them to live, when they opened for operation in 1978. Through its housing arm, they quickly built the Towers at the end of Franklin, and the entire original subdivision of Abasand. With the boom in full swing and the city expanding into the early 80’s, everything started to come to a halt as the 1979 energy crisis finally caught up with the city. Construction came to a halt leaving one neighbourhood consisting of Eglert Dr, Bussierses Dr and Boisvert Place with no houses, just paved roads that would later be nicknamed the “dead roads” that an entire generation would learn how to drive on, and for many more their first beer, as the weekend parties in the “dead roads” were epic.
One by one people started to move away, and by 1987/88 the city became a normal city with a steady population of 36,000 maintaining one McDonalds, two Safeways, one IGA, three high schools, two malls and a string of shops along Franklin Avenue. Sure, there were a few strip malls in Thickwood and Dickensfield, but this was a time when everything in Timberlea was contained to the centre of Brett Drive, no commercial at all.
In June of 1996, Prime Minister Jean Chretien came to town and announced the oil sands expansion and all hell broke loose. Real estate prices started to climb instantly, houses started to pop up in the dead roads; Abasand was expanded, new condos popped all over the downtown, and land needed to be freed up fast for future development. Infrastructure was needed, businesses started to pop up everywhere, and the city grew at a rate never before seen.
Between 1996 and 2014 the region saw 14 new oil companies built. The amount of people it took to build those companies was staggering; our population grew to 88,000 with a projection of a 114,000 by the early 2020’s, but we all know that didn’t happen.
When the price of oil dropped so did the need for people. The population started to dwindle overnight, and then along came the fire and forced everyone to leave. While a lot of people returned, we are still missing about 15,000 people. The dropping oil prices also taught oil companies just how much of a skeleton crew they could run their plants with, so the remaining people that do live here watched as their overtime disappeared overnight.
So here we are at the point where we seem to have started. We are essentially back to the 80’s, where Syncrude and Suncors workforce keep the city alive, we can sprinkle in a few CNRL employees as well for good measure. We even have “dead roads” again with Saline Creek and Parsons North offering up plenty of empty streets to learn to drive on.
If we are going to really look at why businesses are closing, we have have to consider a couple of pink elephants in the room. Astronomical commercial rental rates, Amazon and Skip the Dishes seem to be doing the most damage. With Amazon we never have to leave the comfort of our homes, whether it’s on a smartphone/tablet or just yelling at Alexa, you can order anything from bathroom tissue, dishwasher tabs and Tide, to major engine parts for your car.
While there has been a local push to shop local there is no denying that a family of four can save up to $500 per month using Amazon. You can’t fault the families doing it either, with overtime not there anymore. That extra $500 per month is going towards kids’ hockey and dance lessons. Where Skip the Dishes hurt local businesses is fees cutting into their profit, and they don’t see any alcohol sales. Most large restaurants, especially ones with lounges, factor in a percentage of sales to be alcohol. When you order Skip the Dishes, the restaurant doesn’t see you and your friends come in for a few beers or an impromptu night out.
Bars and restaurants have also seen business in general change. It’s no longer about who has the best food anymore, it’s about who has the best entertainment, whether it be live bands, bowling or arcade-style games. The landscape is changing, and the weak are the first to go. All of this is happening while bars and restaurants pay astronomical rents based on the glory days that have passed. Wood Buffalo Brewing was reportedly paying $56,000 per month, with a drop to $48,000 in their last six months to help through slow times, which of course never seemed to help at all.
So where does this leave us? Well, we need to let it all come to a rest for starters. Rushing to try and re-open closed restaurants is not the answer. Hoping the same four people come back night after night that did before you closed the first time is the actual definition of insanity, where doing the same thing over and over expecting different results applies. If we ever want to see real estate rebound, we need oil to go back to the triple digits so companies will start building more oil plants which would bring more people to fill our empty neighbourhoods. It’s worth noting that Bussieres Drive and Boisvert Place sat empty for 17 years before they saw the return of building equipment. City council was onto something when they debated the motion to close work camps. In January of 2019 we learned that 30,000 people were staying in work camps throughout the region and our new local airport was losing 16 flights per day to work camp airstrips. While the motion discussed involved closing work camps up to 75 km away was defeated, Council could have entertained closing work camps at the 50 km mark and it would have been the largest fastest injection of people by the thousands to our economy.
Perhaps the best thing to take from all of this is to accept the new reality of what Fort McMurray is. For a lot of us its home and always have been, but for a lot more it was a get-rich quick scheme that fizzled. A great deal more respect needs to be shown to the city. A lot of people compare it to wherever they moved from, and wherever they moved from always seem to be better or more beautiful, but what you don’t ever hear about is how they couldn’t work there. While the downturn in the economy is a kick to the gut no one expected, Fort McMurray still provides a great place to live, raise kids and be active. Get used to it...we might have to wait another 17 years for things to change.
Many thanks to Bob Carrothers of Bob Barrett Men’s Apparel for all the years of service to the community. Many times I rolled in an hour before an event with a wardrobe emergency and left with completely altered outfits. We shall all miss that level of service. Thank you, and I hope you have a wonderful retirement.
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