‘Make yourself at home’

Four years ago, Fort McMurray was a byword for boomtown. Many saw it as a “lawless frontier town overrun by transient workers with too much money and too few community linkages,” Mayor Melissa Blake said.

FORT MCMURRAY — Four years ago, Fort McMurray was a byword for boomtown.

Many saw it as a “lawless frontier town overrun by transient workers with too much money and too few community linkages,” Mayor Melissa Blake said.

Now, facing what it sees as a second — and perhaps even larger — wave of oilsands investment, the northern Alberta oilsands city wants it to be different.

Blake told just-completed hearings into a proposed new oilsands mine the city wants to be a place people live in, not just cash in.

“Oilsands companies have been good corporate citizens and their employees are our friends and neighbours, and we want them here,” she said at the hearings into Total E&P Canada’s $9-billion Joslyn plan.

“Unfortunately, that holistic vision of a thriving, family-friendly community seems not to be shared by all the companies that come to Wood Buffalo to develop oilsands resources.” In 2006, Fort McMurray had pretty much burst at the seams.

Years of double-digit growth had doubled its population in less than a decade and everything from water treatment plants to hospitals to roads was taxed beyond its limit.

Social impacts were also large, and “Fort Mac” became legendary for fast bucks and fast times.

Since then, the provincial and federal governments have poured huge sums into the city’s infrastructure — $2.25 billion.

But the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, says the model for development is still the same. Fly-in, fly-out camps discourage workers from putting down roots in the city, while pay arrangements between companies and workers inflate the value of homes past the ability of local people to buy them.

“The (municipality) has significant concerns about the long-term impact of fly-in/fly-out operations,” it told the Joslyn review panel.

“While camp-based operation may alleviate some pressures in the short-term, they also have negative impacts on the local community in the longer term.”

Camps near construction sites temporarily house hundreds of workers.

They also ease the burden on civic infrastructure. But the city says they create little economic benefit.

As well, Fort McMurray wants to become a place where people and their families live, not just work.

Blake points out that the city’s “shadow population” — those living in camps, renting out rooms or sleeping on somebody’s couch — is now about a quarter of its entire population of 103,000.

“Living-out” payments are another problem. They are made to oilsands workers in addition to regular wages that allow them to bid up rents and real estate beyond the ability of anyone else to pay. The average single-family house in Fort McMurray costs $684,000 and a one-bedroom apartment goes for $1,700 a month.

Blake suggests such payments should be restricted to those employees who bring their families to Fort McMurray.

“Give it to them on the condition that they are here acquiring a life that’s intended to be home, as opposed to home being somewhere else.”

The municipality has signed an agreement with Total in which the company agrees to help develop an affordable housing strategy. Wood Buffalo wants that agreement to be part of any approval for the project, and hopes it will become standard for future applications — for the Joslyn application is unlikely to be the last.

The oilsands currently produce about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. That’s slated to double or even triple over the coming years, which means more mines, more construction, more workers, more boom.

“If we have a significantly high number of applications that are approved, we could see similar challenges to what we did at the early part of this decade,” Blake said.

Blake told the Joslyn hearings that although the province is working on ways to deal with the growing number of transient workers in Fort McMurray, oilsands developers aren’t waiting.

“Developers that have resumed activity in Wood Buffalo are making decisions now that may not wait for the implementation of (a plan),” she said.

“We cannot support oilsands development that swells the workforce that makes an employment pilgrimage to our community over helping people to establish roots right here.”