Fort McMurray: The heart of the oil patch seeks its soul – by Nathan Vanderklippe (Globe and Mail – October 25, 2011)

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CALGARY— 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.’ ”

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.

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.

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