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A welcome sign lights up the entrence to Chipman Alta. (Jason Franson/Jason Franson)
A welcome sign lights up the entrence to Chipman Alta. (Jason Franson/Jason Franson)

A little town on the oil sands prepares for $100 oil and a new boom Add to ...

Time moves slowly in Chipman, Alta., where the ancient hotel jukebox plays Toby Keith's I Love This Bar as old guys talk over beers about what it's like working in Fort Mac at 40-below. You can order a hefty helping of burger and fries with a Coke and still get a fistful of change from a $10 bill.

Chipman began life a century ago as a railway whistle stop and grew into a proud six-grain-elevator village. Now, the elevators are gone and the main street has been ravaged by fire and neglect. The town hangs on, barely, as a couple of gas pumps, three churches and a collection of bungalows in the blur of the fast, flat highway less than an hour east of Edmonton.

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For a long time, it looked like Chipman would join all the other ghostly Prairie villages bypassed by economic progress-- until one day in 2007, when a developer named Ted Rea blew in from Dallas with money and dreams and bought much of the place.

"Ted was just like Santa Claus on our doorstep," Mayor Jim Palmer says. "We figured it's either go with him, or the community would drop right off the grid."

Much has happened since Mr. Rea unrolled his vision of a town of 10,000 people, instead of the current 250 to 300 souls - a bustling "urban village" with affordable homes for the coming building boom in upgraders in the nearby Heartland region, just 20 minutes to the west.

Since then, oil went on a crazy ride to $147 (U.S.) a barrel, only to plunge to $35 within six months. Those new upgraders weren't built, and Mr. Rea's plans were put on hold.

But Chipman clung to its dream, and now it's coming back. Oil is close to $100 a barrel again and there are stirrings of hope in Upgrader Alley, where raw bitumen from the province's vast oil sands would be processed into synthetic crude to be shipped to refineries and transformed into gasoline and other fuel products.

But this time, there is a sense it will be different - not as out-of-control as in the frenetic 2004-08 period when Alberta was awash with excess. The province will still reap huge gains from rising oil prices. But there is more talk of diversification and value-added projects, instead of the gold rush fever of the past - and a greater confidence, perhaps, that this time the era of triple-digit oil won't be quite so fleeting.

As Alberta braces for the next wave of growth, it is hoping for a sustainable future, and nowhere more than in little towns on the periphery that tried to catch the tail of the last boom, before the global economy suffered a stroke. Now in Chipman, and nearby places like Lamont, Bruderheim and Redwater, they're hoping for a second chance at the last chance - and they hope this time it's for real.

Optimism returns

In Chipman, Ted Rea says he is still committed, having pumped about $18-million into the town. Through his company, Triland International, he bought up much of the main street, shedding or renovating shabby false-fronts, and buying 810 hectares of land, while prodding the mayor and council to obtain a provincial annexation that created a town footprint 14 times bigger than today.

So far, the only tangible results are three houses in various states of completion on the edge of the village. Building a new Chipman will not happen overnight, Mr. Rea said last week from Dallas, as he prepared for meetings with his financial partner, American National Insurance Co., of Galveston. But it will happen, he insists, and he hopes to start again within three months.

"It might take us a little longer to ultimately develop the whole project, but we've never walked away from a large development," said Mr. Rea, a 70-year-old native of Streetsville, Ont., who found wealth in another boom-and-bust economy, around Dallas.

"I have faith Ted will do what he said he would, and those times are getting closer," says Mr. Palmer, 63, mayor for the past 27 years. "We're just sitting here waiting for the next boom."

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