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The River Station District development, by Liam Construction, is part of the reconstruction of Fort McMurray, Alta., after it was significantly damaged by wildfires in 2016.

Graham Whatmough/The Globe and Mail

After living and working around the world, Bill de Silva moved to Fort McMurray, Alta., more than 40 years ago and set up his construction firm, Liam Construction. Then, in May, 2016, came the relentless wildfires that blew through the city and surrounding areas. The fires prompted the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people from their homes in northern Alberta’s largest settlement.

After the fires were finally contained and people were allowed to return to their Fort McMurray homes, the devastation was assessed. It was bad, but Mr. de Silva was ready to answer the call to help redevelop the town, if needed. That’s when Liam Construction kicked into action, helping to rebuild this once-prosperous northern Alberta city.

“Anyone familiar with Fort McMurray and our region recognizes the long-term positive impact of a series of long-standing businesses, business owners and individuals,” says Adam Hardiman, communications strategist with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. “In many ways, [these companies] are pillars of the community and a reflection of the region’s success over the past number of decades.”

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The growth of a business mirrors the growth of a city

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Mr. de Silva earned his university degree in Britain before moving to Canada in the early 1970s. He worked in Yellowknife for a few years before spending a decade bouncing between Toronto, Dubai, Seychelles, Perth.

Finally settling in Toronto, Mr. de Silva got a job with the construction unit responsible for building worker housing for oil giant Syncrude Canada Ltd.

He picked the name “Liam” after his newborn son (Liam de Silva is now the owner, second generation, of the company), and the company began building housing and development in the oil plants areas after the 2½-year contract with Syncrude ended.

Mr. de Silva would spend those first three entrepreneurial years travelling between camps and the town – often multiple times a day even through harsh weather conditions. Eventually, it became too much, and Mr. de Silva decided to realign his company’s focus and concentrate only work and development of the City of Fort McMurray.

“We’ve built a lot here. We’ve invested a lot. We’re one of the biggest developers in the area – and we are local,” Mr. de Silva says.

Bill de Silva, left, founded LIAM Construction in Fort McMurray around 40 years ago.

Bill de Silva /Handout

Like with any business, there have been some ups and downs over the past 40 years. In 1993, for example, Liam Construction only built three homes. “In a smaller city, you have to work with what you’ve got,” Mr. de Silva says.

In other years, however, work was plentiful. Over the past two decades, Mr. de Silva and his firm completed the local hospital’s long-term care wing and the emergency wing.

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The firm also acts as landlord and property manager for three of the four hotels in town it developed and owns the building the fourth hotel is currently located in – a rebranded Ramada.

The firm’s presence in this city is prominent. Driving through Fort McMurray, it’s hard not to notice the blazing orange “LIAM” logo. From hotels to residential to commercial, the firm has had its hand in a lot of the continued growth of Fort McMurray, a town that’s doubled in population between 1996 and 2016, according to the Statistics Canada census.

“It’s a town where you move along and do different things at different times depending on what’s needed,” Mr. de Silva says.

With growth comes challenges – not to mention the unpredictable wrath of Mother Nature, such as the 2016 wildfires that almost devastated the city.

When it was all over, Statscan estimated the cost of damage of these wildfires was $9-billion. It’s still classified as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, Mr. Hardiman says.

What was amazing was how unaffected Fort McMurray’s core was, when compared to surrounding areas, Mr. de Silva says. Over all, only 10 per cent of Fort McMurray’s residential homes actually burned down; some commercial property was damaged or destroyed in the wildfire, but none in the downtown area.

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Local economy is growing, despite setbacks

Still, challenges from these wildfires continue to this day. Liam Construction experienced a “peak” year in 2014, thanks to the high price of oil and demand for workers; in 2015, there was economic downturn, as global oil prices started to soften.

The rebuilding after the fires gave a new boost to the local economy, Mr. de Silva says, but that boost was temporary and only lasted for two years.

“Everyone knew there was an opportunity to build homes that burnt-down and you had all these people come into town – for quick work, quick money before moving on,” Mr. de Silva says. “Now, that the boom is gone, the market is back to what it was.”

Uncertainty around the TransCanada pipeline infrastructure development continues to dampen any sign of upward momentum in the area’s economy – but most are optimistic. Perhaps that’s why other businesses are starting to invest in the city. For instance, Dollarama decided to come to Fort McMurray, after two years of negotiations. This, after a “tough election” for Albertans, says the junior Mr. de Silva, Liam. It was an election that concentrated on what mattered to northern Alberta: jobs and resources.

“Dollarama moving into the city is a good symbol for Fort McMurray,” Liam de Silva says. Having them come at this time signals that the commercial sector sees positive momentum in the area’s economy.

Mr. Hardiman agrees and adds that the city’s now-stable economy has brought a sense of optimism. The rise in optimism comes amid an increase in labour – the 2018 census showed that more than 10 per cent of the city’s population moved there within the past three years.

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“People are choosing Fort McMurray,” Mr. Hardiman says.

To support this growth, the city needs new residential communities. Two new communities, both built by Liam Construction, are Eagle Ridge and Timberlea. Both neighbourhoods are just 10 minutes from Fort McMurray’s downtown. To help support these new developments, Liam Construction included commercial units to add to the city’s current 100 commercial tenants that include restaurants, medical offices and small businesses – all of which are helping to expand the city’s economy.

Return of the core companies

Then there’s the return of the Big Oil business to this part of northern Alberta. The federal government will soon give its decision for the proposed $20-billion Teck Resources Ltd. oil sands project (which has support from local Indigenous leaders). Although Suncor Energy Inc. and Syncrude do not operate camps, the companies bring in unionized labour and the lodging for these employees are owned by Indigenous businesses. According to a Syncrude spokesperson, 90 per cent the company's workforce is located in Fort McMurray. The hope is that there will be continued opportunities for workers to come to Fort McMurray in order to work for these large resource companies, says Liam de Silva.

Even adding 250 men and women for a project for one of the large oil companies could require the construction of a 125-suite building in Fort McMurray. More workers mean more buildings and more income for town folks and the city.

While there is still uncertainty about the growth of the country’s largest oil patch area, the steady growth the city is currently experiencing prompts an optimistic response from city council, as well as from local commercial sector stakeholders, such as Mr. de Silva.

“These are all good signs that this city is, once again, growing,” Mr. de Silva says.

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