While Fort McMurray has seen its share of ups and downs over the decades as the Alberta oil and gas industry experiences booms and busts, its downtown core has not changed at the same pace.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) last month for potential development of municipally-owned land bordered by Franklin Avenue, Morrison Street, MacDonald Avenue and Main Street in downtown Fort McMurray.
The RFP calls for prospective proponents to submit proposals for acquisition of an interest in the lands as well as design and development of the area.
“This council is committed to developing the downtown core so that it becomes an attractive focal point in the community for residents and visitors alike. I’m pleased to see our vision for a revitalized downtown moving forward,” said Mayor Don Scott.
While growth of Fort McMurray’s downtown has lagged behind booms in the oil and gas industry and a fluctuating population base, RMWB deputy chief administrative officer Jamie Doyle said the RFP is part of a general push to improve the downtown core.
“It’s not as much about modernization as it is finding a way to make continued improvements to our downtown in a way that improves quality of life for our residents, creates opportunities for our local business community and attracts investment and interest – both economically and socially,” Doyle said.
“We believe those two things go hand in hand. This is a strategic goal for our council and we are moving forward with looking to achieve this goal.”
“This is just one step in an overall approach to community development, and it needs to be done the right way and in a better way than perhaps we’ve seen in the past. Once we review the ideas put forward in the RFP, we will ensure a comprehensive public engagement process to assess how our residents would like to move forward,” he added.
A previous attempt to revitalize the downtown via a new $580-million arena on the land cited in the current RFP ended in October 2015 when a past municipal council voted to cease negotiations with International Coliseums, the arena’s lead proponent, following a public engagement process.
That experience will inform the revitalization process going forward, Doyle said.
“We will always look back at past experiences, proposed ideas, research and public engagement results as a window into how we best move forward. Some of the high-level principles, such as the idea that our council and our residents do want to see improvements in our downtown – is what is driving today’s approach,” Doyle said.
Complicating development in the region is the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry, which dominates the local economy and employment.
“It certainly creates some challenges against the backdrop of other factors, and there is no question we are a unique region in the Canadian context,” Doyle added.
“That said, our situation also creates opportunities for dynamism, creativity and responsible development. There are numerous examples in our history of this taking place. While a number of key factors that shape the development environment are out of our control, it’s important we continue to pursue appropriate development when economic growth isn’t as robust as it was during boom years.”
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo 2018 – 2021 Strategic Plan cites downtown revitalization as a main concern going forward, with encouraging development downtown, establishing a municipal land inventory and providing incentives to update storefronts as key priorities.
Other priorities include clear land use plans and regulations, a riverfront master plan and revitalization initiative and a review of the municipal development plan.
Council has also identified regional economic development, responsible government and strengthened partnerships with Indigenous communities as other objectives.
“In keeping with those priorities, our focus at the moment is on the projects, programs and services that support the advancement of those areas of focus, understanding the region is stable economically compared to recent years and is continuing to recover from the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history,” Doyle said.
In 2016, Fort McMurray suffered from a devastating wildfire that caused extensive damage to both neighbourhoods and industry and forced the temporary evacuation of over 80,000 people from the area.