From its fur trade in the early 1800s to its salt plant and sawmills in the mid-1900s, this northern community in Alberta’s Wood Buffalo regional municipality has nurtured intrepid pioneers and enterprising thinkers.
And when the Great Canadian Oil Sands project began to mine the region’s wealth of bitumen in 1964, Fort McMurray – or Fort Mac, as it is fondly known – became more than a place of dreams; it became a boomtown.
Today, with oil production in the Athabasca oil sands expected to more than quadruple over the next two decades, Fort McMurray is riding another wave of tremendous growth – and transforming from a boomtown into a model, 21st century community.
“The resource we’re developing right now is world class,” says Jeff Penney, manager, economic development for Wood Buffalo, one of the North America’s largest municipalities, made up of Fort McMurray and nine rural communities.
“We’re building a community that’s also world class, where people want to come not just for work and career, but also to raise a family,” says Mr. Penney.
Over the last three decades, Fort McMurray’s population has grown from about 28,000 to close to 80,000 – a diverse group that represents about 130 different cultures. This number is expected to soar to almost 200,000 by 2030. Fort Mac will soon be the third largest community in Alberta, served by an expanded highway that is 10 lanes at its widest point.
What’s driving this growth? One word: jobs. Increased oil production, combined with efforts to diversify the region’s economy, could boost Wood Buffalo’s employment figures to almost 90,000 jobs by 2015 and more than 162,000 by 2030. They won’t all be based in the oil fields; non-oil sands employment is expected to account for 40 per cent of total jobs by 2015, increasing to 50 per cent by 2030.
“Every time the oil sands industry grows, we put pressures on the region,” says Ken Chapman, executive director of the Oil Sands Developers Group, a non-profit organization that represents oil sands developers and operators.
“The resource we’re developing right now is world class. We’re building a community that’s also world class, where people want to come not just for work and career, but also to raise a family.”
“Fort Mac has responded to these pressures by implementing a significant and very intelligent municipal development plan and a city centre redevelopment plan,” adds Mr. Chapman.
The plans set out a blueprint for an infrastructure that will make it easier for existing companies to operate, encourage a more diversified business base and improve quality of life. The municipality will work with the Canadian National Railway and other partners to potentially expand rail services for moving people, goods and machinery. It is building roads and a new airport terminal, scheduled to open in two years.
Perhaps most exciting is the redevelopment of Fort McMurray’s city centre, which will focus on building a high-density downtown space that features office buildings, multi-family dwellings, hotels, stores, restaurants and a cultural centre.
MacDonald Island Park – a vast community recreational centre, complete with golf course, Olympic-sized pool and hockey arena – will be integrated into a “recreation zone” that includes the Riverfront Park. Connecting structures, such as a pedestrian bridge, will make the zone more accessible from downtown.
Sustainability is a key guiding principle in Fort McMurray’s development plan, says Mr. Penney. The city is looking into low-temperature gasification, for example, to generate heat from landfill waste. Starting this fall, the city will power its transit system with biodiesel from waste cooking oil from hotels and restaurants.
“We want to be the jurisdiction people look to for best practices when it comes to developing a large, vibrant urban centre,” says Mr. Penney. “Suffice it to say that the city centre redevelopment of Fort McMurray will be the most exciting project in Canada.”