Fort McMurray celebrates two decades as an ‘urban service area’ this year—a milestone that Mayor Melissa Blake says has been fueled by a combination of persistence, adaptability and patience.
Previously known as ‘McMurray” from 1947 to 1962, council gave up the rank of ‘city’ and amalgamated with the local improvement district 143 to create the Regional Municipality in 1995. Blake says at the time, it was necessary in order to accommodate the rapid acceleration of the oil sands industry.
“We didn’t have much choice—we had to address two aspects of improvement, infrastructure in the community and in the industry sector,” she says. “When we look at the circumstances we had back then, we’ve been able to achieve far beyond what we anticipated.”
Blake recalls when she first got elected, the transition in the community was startling.
‘People were looking at retirement in the area, because they had lived there all their lives,” she says. “Then when the enticing investment opportunities came for the oil sands, houses became a hot commodity, values were changing on a daily basis. Some of these folks were not happy and managed to get out with some good money. Many stayed and hung on through the transition.
The transitions continued, with political leaders leaving as well. New personalities and ambitions flooded the area. The housing market skyrocketed, resources were short, and the need for infrastructure and responsive planning was at a boiling point.
“What was created here has had that ripple effect—much of it challenging simply to catch up with the needs. But I really applaud this community. Most were up for the challenge. New people came in and brought something great to the table. Against some peoples’ better judgement, we bucked the trend. I believe those who come thrive because they are bigger, braver, bolder and more prone to succeed”.
Of course with any growth of this scale, there are always some growing pains. In this case, these have been reported elsewhere: a young, rotating workforce with high disposable incomes, experiencing housing shortages and often far from home for the first time in their lives.
While the media often focus on these, the reality is that many of the earlier challenges have already been addressed and the community now features plenty of new housing, impressive recreational facilities and a premiere entertainment complex. It’s not surprising that it has grown to become the third largest urban centre in Alberta and a place where young families are choosing to set down roots and creating a baby boom.
The accelerated pace that dropped into the laps of council and residents 20 years ago continues. The push for the acquisition of land for residential, service and retail development keeps on, as well as convincing big box retail to invest in the area. Then there’s the need to provide local resources and skilled workers to provide support for new oil and gas development projects with environmental stewardship.
The magic age of 20, at least in human years, is a mix of facing grown-up responsibilities laced with recent memories of freedom and awkward growing pains. The urban centre of Fort McMurray has definitely gone through similar challenges, growing up fast but finally settling into a comfortable rhythm and an identifiable soul.
“The increased capacity was a game changer. Delivering certain infrastructures, like better roads for commuters, schools, recreation areas and health care and community services gave a sense of stability and culture. Now we have an even bigger commitment, not only to our current citizens and business partners, but also to the 1,400 new babies born here every year. Our residents are creating a citizenship that we have to take care of.”
The latest slowdown isn’t a new experience to the community. The previous dips really didn’t affect the speed of business in the area. This time, however, Blake says it feels different.
“I get a sense that this is a hard reset for the industry,” she says. “People are looking in the deep dark holes to find out what needs to be done for efficiency and cost control. I don’t know how long this will last, but I can tell you, we will be even better prepared when it picks up again because of the solid infrastructure we have built and economic efficiencies we have pursued.”
Whatever the future holds for the Municipality and its long-time mayor, Blake is proud of the dramatic transformation over the past two decades. “I’ve been able to be a part of history in the making. What a privilege and an honour.”