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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 ...

And Mr. Rea knows politics. About 35 years ago, he was a councillor in Streetsville, Ont., working with a colleague named Hazel McCallion. Ms. McCallion moved up to mayor of the amalgamated city of Mississauga and Mr. Rea focused on his property business. He saw greener pastures south of the border, and in 1978 headed down to Texas with some partners.

The Texas connection

They bought a parcel of land near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, called the Valley Ranch, and made a deal with the Dallas Cowboys and their owner Clint Murchison Jr. to move the Cowboys' head office and training facilities there.

Those were heady times. On the website of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, retired cheerleader Dana Presley Killmer recounts her hectic life as PR director for both Triland and the Cowboys. She spent her days planning parties -_"some I was not allowed to attend" and doing "dog and pony" shows for potential investors, while evenings were devoted to her cheerleader training. Ms. Killmer retired in 1985 and, after a bit part on Hee Haw, raised her kids Montana and Stevie Jo.

The Triland-Cowboys partnership ended under new team ownership, and as the city plays host to the Super Bowl this weekend, Mr. Rea regrets there are no tickets for him. But his Dallas experience is relevant to Chipman's future, he insists. "I started Valley Ranch in 1981, and there are still small pieces of land being developed. But there are 34,000 people that sleep there every night. When I first looked at that land, everyone thought I was crazy."

Some people said the same of Chipman, but in the village there are plenty of true believers. After all, what else is there? The community had been up and down since the late 1800s, when the first settlers came from Ontario, followed by a wave of Ukrainian farmers.

In 1905, the Canadian Northern Railway, a precursor of the Canadian National, arrived. In fact, the town was named after Clarence Campbell Chipman, an aide to Canada's railway minister. It existed because there had to be grain elevators at regular intervals to serve farmers. But as the agricultural economy shifted and grain trade was centralized and automated - and two fires devastated the main street - Chipman declined.

Now there are signs of change. As well as the trio of unsold homes, there's a Triland sales annex that, at the moment, is not selling houses. Across the road is the refurbished convenience store, Chipman Market, which Graham Johnson, an Edmonton concert promoter, manages on behalf of Ted Rea and his sons, Ted Jr. and James.

Mr. Johnson had never heard of Chipman before the Reas came to Edmonton, looking for someone to run concerts that would draw attention to their housing plans. It is a form of guerrilla marketing, says Mr. Johnson, who held an April Wine concert last summer for about 1,000 people just off his parking lot. "I will bring in Corb Lund or Great Big Sea and sell some houses," he vows.

The Reas renovated the store but had trouble finding a suitable tenant. So they offered Mr. Johnson a lease, and the opportunity, he says, to be a kind of "chamber of commerce" for the village. The store is essential to the strategy, he says, quoting the Reas as saying "a town without a store is just a collection of houses."

The same could be said for a town without a watering hole. Cindy Lindemann and her husband Rob bought the Chipman Hotel just as Mr. Rea was heading into town. Since then she has received nibbles about selling, but it would have to be the right price and to someone who would carry on the tradition of the 64-year-old hotel.

Her key condition would be: "Don't touch that jukebox. There are songs on there that go back 100 years." It's just like the town it sits in, one foot in the past and another in a future that, in a more measured Alberta, is stirring with some hope for continued survival.

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