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Downrown Fort McMurray.

Rick Boden

When Jennifer Keesmaat began thinking about how to transform the boomtown heart of the oil sands into a thriving centre, she grew slightly despondent.

"When we started in Fort McMurray, the very first thing we said is, 'This is the twilight zone. No rules that apply anywhere else apply here,' " said Ms. Keesmaat, an urban planner with Toronto-based Dialog, which has been hired to help fix the city. But she returned from an initial visit to the area this spring questioning how to do it.

"I came back and held my head in my hands and thought, 'Oh my, finally I've met my match. This nut is too big to crack.' "

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But as Fort McMurray faces a future of explosive growth, it is nonetheless trying to do exactly that. It has employed a network of consultants, and petitioned its own people, in an attempt to figure out how to remake a modern-day hinterland gold rush town into an entertaining, vibrant city.

It's not just a municipal issue. Industry today spends tens of thousands a year on each worker it flies in and out of northern Alberta. That has created significant incentives to convince people to move nearer the oil sands.

With an average household income of $177,000 – the highest in the country – Fort McMurray is awash in cash. But the town, and the Municipality of Wood Buffalo it sits in, have struggled to tread water amid the deluge of new arrivals. Planning for the future has been tough. Asked what's wrong with Fort McMurray's downtown today, Toronto real estate executive Ron Taylor says simply: "There is none."

Josh Coles, a leader in the CEP union, which represents thousands of oil sands workers, has a different answer.

"Never have you seen so much money fly around a place where so many people are unhappy," he said. "We certainly support Fort McMurray becoming a proper city – if you can use that term without sounding derogatory."

Fort McMurray is cold. It's remote. It's pricey: Food is 73 per cent more expensive than the Alberta average, while shelter commands an 88 per cent premium. It's a town built on work. Its definition of play has tended to include more drinking and more drugs than other places. Its downtown is, in places, uncomfortably seedy. Its trucks seem to outnumbers its pedestrians.

Yet it's a city with ambitions to become something different. The municipality has spent $535,000 hiring a cadre of consultants and urban designers, including Ms. Keesmaat and Mr. Taylor, in hopes of shaping it into something great.

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Taken individually, their ideas are hardly breathtaking: a network of river parks and paths. Wider sidewalks and better transit. An Ottawa-like outdoor skating area on the Snye, an arm of the Clearwater River. A downtown civic centre. A public square surrounded by restaurants. An arena fit for a WHL team. A stadium fit for a professional baseball team. An outdoor performance centre.

Taken together, though, those ideas point to a place that might sound, to many, attractive.

"This is not a radical transformation," Ms. Keesmaat said. "But it's a radically different way of envisioning the city."

And that, of course, is the goal – not only to build a home for oil sands workers, but also to grow a surrounding body of professionals, from lawyers to accountants to information technology experts.

"What if Fort McMurray had a great downtown environment with funky spaces, great cafés, with a real night life and places to gather? Would it be desirable for those office workers currently located in Edmonton to be located in Fort McMurray? Absolutely," Ms. Keesmaat added.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers report commissioned by the municipality suggests what's possible. Today, some 8,000 people work in downtown Fort McMurray. About 12,000 people live there, in roughly 3,000 units. By 2030, PwC suggests, downtown could be home to 45,000 workers, with 52,000 to 68,000 people living in 19,000 to 27,000 units – the wide range owing to uncertainty over how many families and spouses would move north.

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"I didn't think I'd see in my career another project like this," Mr. Taylor said. "The changes that are going to transpire in Fort McMurray are the most significant, certainly, in our country. And they're starting to get the same attention from the U.S. and beyond."

Fort McMurray's mayor, Melissa Blake, suggests her home can compete with other global places that have used oil wealth to build remarkable cities.

"Look at what society has been able to create in Dubai. Why would we as Canadians look at our opportunities any differently?" she asked. "We need to give ourselves more credit in this province."

Still, the obstacles are substantial. Will the pickup-truck crowd want to cram into 500-square-foot apartments and condos? Will new arrivals forsake sweeping new subdivisions for dense downtown living? Will six-figure households be content to take transit, or walk in -30 degree Celsius?

It will take time and perseverance to find out.

But outsiders say Fort McMurray has one major advantage: few other places seeking urban transformation can boast of similar growth. The town doubled in population over the past decade, to 77,000 people. It expects to add another 120,000 by 2030, which would make it Alberta's third-largest city.

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In other words: Fort McMurray doesn't have to make over an existing set of people. It can reshape its future on fresh faces, who aren't resistant to change.

"You have a market where things can respond to your ideas," said Larry Beasley, who helped lead city planning in Vancouver before doing similar work around the world.

"That means you potentially can make something happen ... And boy, there's a lot of potential there if they just decide they want to do something."

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