Fort McMurray, Alta. city officials are proposing new rules that would attempt to reduce the amount of work camps near the city.
After several days of debate and compromise, city council voted unanimously to support an amended motion that would reject permits for the renewal of existing “fly-in/fly-out” work camps and halt the approval of new camps within 75 kilometres of the city.
Camps inaccessible by road or needed for construction and maintenance would be exempted. According to the city, the moratorium would affect 61 camps and about 27,256 workers.
Administration will now draft a bylaw and hold public hearings before deciding to implement it.
Mayor Don Scott, who championed the motion, said the crackdown is needed to create a more sustainable community envisioned by officials back in 2012. The city set a goal of reducing the work camp population to no more than 10 per cent by 2030, but Scott said over the years little has been done to accomplish that.
According to the city, there are currently 87 camps within 120 kilometres of the city’s urban service area housing more than 32,000 rotational workers. This makes it 29.8 per cent of the region’s population.
Surveys of workers by the city show that around 60 per cent say affordable housing is the main concern when considering becoming permanent residents.
But Scott explained that excuses for the camps are running out as cheap housing is becoming more and more available. He said in recent years the area’s home values have dropped more than 25 per cent.
According to national real estate firm Zoocasa, Fort McMurray is the most affordable housing market in the province. The average Fort McMurray home costs $439,664 and the median dual income is $221,425. The median single income is $106,912. The city also has a rental vacancy rate of over 22 per cent.
“We have plenty of room in schools, we have the capacity to accommodate more people, so why are we continuing to grant these permits?” said Scott, who noted his original motion was much harsher and would have cast a far wider net.
The region also suffered an exodus of approximately 6,000 residents in the past few years due to historic wildfires and plummeting oil prices.
“With house prices collapsing, businesses struggling, why are we giving permits for these camps when we have a target we are supposed to be working towards?” Scott said. “We need a sustainable community and with a third of that community in camps we can’t create that.”
Scott explained phasing out work camps is one tool the city can use in its goal to boost businesses, create employment and broaden the tax base.
“This is an opportunity for industry to create a true partnership with the municipality,” said Scott. “I want industry to be strong and we fight for them on issues of pipelines and development but we need a strong community at the same time.”
Karim Zariffa, executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA), disagreed with Scott and the proposed moratorium, but believes the conversation that is happening has been positive.
Zariffa explained it is obvious the permanent population has decreased and the housing market has gone down, but it is not unique to the city or the region, noting even real estate market titans like Vancouver have seen decreases.
“When you actually look at the economic indications, unemployment is very low, housing prices have stabilized and are now on par with the province,” said Zariffa. “There is a good story to tell to attract people to the region.”
He also disagreed with Scott’s view that little progress had been made in addressing the work camp population, noting during the downturn industry hired approximately 2,800 people in the region and have been working with government on a suite of incentives to attract new residents in addition to existing incentives.
“We feel that progress has been made and a moratorium is not the solution,” Zariffa said. “If it is intended to stimulate the housing market and drop unemployment further we don’t feel that that will actually happen.”
He believes a moratorium could result in the loss of $15 million of municipal tax revenue and hundreds of millions of business opportunity for those who provide camp services. He stated it would also decimate the airport by cutting its traffic by up to 40 per cent.
However, Scott noted that the city assessed airport traffic and found 577 flights in one month skipped the city airport and used six industry airstrips.
Zariffa also took issue with the city’s tally of camp workers, explaining that approximately 14,000 of the more than 32,000 counted on the 2018 census were temporary turnaround workers as it was a big turnaround year.
Despite his disagreements with the moratorium, Zariffa said industry will continue to work with administration to develop incentives and will also participate in the upcoming hearings for the bylaw.
The OSCA conducted its own survey of camp workers and found similar results to the city with 48 per cent saying they would consider moving to the city if there was cheap housing and job security.
“We must harness our attention to that and come to a common ground,” Zariffa said.