YMM: Alberta's Other Billion Dollar City!

By Richard White, October 28, 2013

While Calgary and Edmonton grab all the attention as urban playgrounds for the young “creative class” Fort McMurray has just as ambitious plans to spend billions to transform their frontier city into a mecca for Gen Y to live, work and play. The city is projected to grow from its current population of 105,000 to 230,000 by 2030. 

Mega projects in the region will invest over $120 billion over the same time period. The region’s municipal budget exceeds one billion dollars and the airport traffic exceeds one million.

While this might not be Dubai or Abu Dhabi, it will be a very interesting made in Canada urban transformation to watch. 

Ft. McMurray's massive recreational complex on MacDonald Island Park possibly the biggest urban recreational center in Canada, maybe North America.  The Island also include a municipal golf course and pathways. It already is a hub of activity 18/7.  Ft. McMurray's MacDonald Island has more activities and potential than Calgary's Prince's Island.

City Centre Makeover?

Recently I spent two days in Ft. McMurray wandering their city centre trying to understand how the mega makeover of an urban place  “gone wild” could happen.  How do you convert one of Canada’s largest car dealership that occupies several blocks into a pedestrian friendly landscape? Can you integrate a recently built major power center in the middle of your City Centre into a retail hub? While other cities deal with converting car-oriented streets to more pedestrian friendly places, Ft. McMurray’s city centre is all about trucks of all shapes and sizes!

What I found was a city centre that has all of the elements of an urban playground. Keyano College campus provides not only a learning centre, but also a wonderful cultural hub with studios for musicians, dance and visual artists. Wandering the halls I was surprised how international the campus is.  City 

Currently on of the tallest structures in the City Centre is this parking garage.  Strange thing is that it isn't a public parking garage, but Alberta Motor Product's car storage.  Already businesses are realizing the need to build up not out.  AMP is one of Canada's top 10 General Motor dealers and will become a key player in the city centre redevelopment as it covers several blocks.    

Keyano College is the hub for Ft. McMurray's growing cultural community.  It has great potential to be the hub for an urban village as part of the City Centre redevelopment.  

At the other end of the city centre is a mega recreation centre with indoor pool, waterpark, hockey and curling rinks, gym and library.  Expansion plans ($128M) are currently underway that will add baseball and football stadiums and outdoor concert area and skating ring that looks like something Calatrava (Peace Bridge, Calgary) would design; this is a big city development.   The stadium will host a CFL pre-season game in 2015 and there is a rumour the city is courting the Blue Jays to play in the baseball stadium.  There are also plans for a major downtown arena for hockey, concerts and trade shows.  This is Dubai-like city branding!

While the city centre currently has no high street with the boutique retail and restaurants that the Gen Y craves, it does have four major grocery stores (Sobeys, Safeway, Save-On-Foods and Superstore), it also has two major hardware stores (RONA and Home Hardware).  Calgary’s city center dwellers would love to have these amenities.  And yes, they do have a Wal-Mart – the 21st century department store.

On block off of Franklin Avenue (main street) is a huge power centre with Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart.  It will be a challenge to incorporate this into a traditional urban village plan.  However, it does present a unique opportunity to show how Power Centres and Urban Centres can co-exist - the best of both worlds! 

Makeover has already begun!

Construction is already happening to create Snye Park along the Clearwater River with a marina, boat launch, beach, fishing pier, café and youth centre. One of the unique features and challenges of Ft. McMurray culture is the use of powerboats and snowmobiles as part of their urban culture. This outdoor culture needs to be embraced as part of the transformation.

While lessons might be learned from places like Vancouver (Yaletown), Portland (Pearl District), Calgary (East Village), Saskatoon (river development) or Winnipeg (The Forks), what is needed is a “MADE FOR” Ft. McMurray urban sense of place. A place that integrates all of their toys - trucks, cars, bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles, boats and pedestrians depending on the weather, season and personal preference. 

There is incredible potential to convert the banks of the Clearwater River in to a River Park the entire length of Ft. McMurray's City Centre.  It could easily be on par with Vancouver, Calgary or Winnipeg's waterfront developments.  

Old malls and surface parking lots will be transformed over the next 20 years into thriving people places.  The old Zellers store in the Peter Pond Mall is currently being converted into a 40,000 sf Sport Chek, which will make it their second largest store.  

Currently Ft. McMurray’s City Centre has 12,000 people living there, which represents about 10% of the regional population – twice that of Calgary and Vancouver's 6%.  In chatting with the locals I get a sense the city is ready for change and that it is a place that welcomes innovation not imitation.  

This is going to be fun to watch! 

This is an artist rendering of the Molson Outdoor Rink on the construction fence.  This beats anything Calgary, Vancouver or Edmonton has. Things are happening! 

This is an artist rendering of the Molson Outdoor Rink on the construction fence.  This beats anything Calgary, Vancouver or Edmonton has. Things are happening! 

This is the SMS Stadium and field house that will have 5,000 permanent seats, with the ability to expand to 20,000 seats. It will host major sporting events, festivals, concerts and even grass root events.  It will be completed by 2015 in time for the Edmonton Saskatchewan CFL pre-season game and the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games. 


CW writes:  "Up to now, I have only heard one side of this story, so it's great to hear the other. I had no idea of the extent of the ambition up there. I hope you spent some of your two days inquiring on the acceptance of the private sector into these plans for Fort McMurray. E.g., how much new development has been initiated in support of them. It would be good to read some follow-up stories from you because, honestly, you're great at tracking this stuff. You understand the several perspectives.

I know local developers have been trying to develop "urban work camps" - residential and retail combined in the city centre. They see a business opportunity in having the companies move their work camp population into the city to give the workers a balanced lifestyle. They have found the city's directives on development to be illogical and onerous."

 ST writes: "I was invited to be member of their urban design panel and they flew me there last year for a day...Pretty ambitious plans by mayor and CAO...assuming long term oil sand viability, it may become better place for people moving there for few years with family and making loads of money. Climate and sense of isolation is challenging. Currently, rough place and people, kind of 19 century gold rush boomtown environment. The question is how sustainable will all that investment be in the long run...Extremelly high real estate prices...I saw shacks selling for $800 K...incredible! However, the same could be said for Dubai or Abu Dhabi - I worked in the later not that long ago."

PM writes: "This city has been on my radar for a while; however, I was not aware of the type of $$ planned for the city over the long term. Great vision of the city. Thanks for putting out another informative blog."