Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Future of Fort McMurray - Coming Home

There are times in life when it is better to listen than to speak. Those times are a challenge for me, because I am known for my propensity to speak (and speak, and speak, and speak). I often find it difficult to remain quiet, but there are occasions when I feel I can do more by listening than by talking. And that has been true for the last few weeks here in Fort McMurray.

Last night RMWB council, after a long and exhausting council meeting during which they heard from dozens of residents, voted to go ahead with land expropriations in order to develop a sports and entertainment centre on Franklin Avenue in our downtown core. To say this issue has been contentious would be to put it mildly, and last night it came to the final moment destined to change the history of this community regardless of what decision was made. And so the decision was made, a hard decision no doubt for every individual who has been elected to serve us. A decision that will not please everyone, for certain. A bold and brave decision, too, because the fate of this community and thousands and thousands of people rests squarely on their shoulders - and that is a responsibility I do not believe any of them take lightly, not even for a second.

Over the past few months I have heard hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of opinions on this subject. I have spoken to property and business owners in the downtown core, and those who run non-profit organizations. I have spoken to those who serve on our council, and those who work within the administration in the RMWB. All along the way I have been firmly committed to the belief that we need to revitalize our downtown core, and to have it grow to reflect the city we want to be. I continue to feel that way, and last night I was gratified to see that not one person disputed the necessity of redeveloping a long-neglected area of our community. We may differ in our thoughts on how to get there, the process and the details, but generally it seems we all want to see this community be better, be bolder, be bigger - and be the place we know in our hearts it can be. And that place, that desire to make this a better community, is the starting point for us to come together as we move into the future of this community.

This issue has been divisive. I have friends who are deeply entrenched on both sides. I think, as I said on Twitter last night, there is a time for dissension - and then there is a time when the dust settles and we must begin to come together and rebuild from that dissension. Holding on to animosity or bitterness does no good, and mires us in the past at a time when we need to move into the future. Once a decision has been made and the path has been determined I believe it is time to find a way to step onto it, and walk together. I believe that time has come in Fort McMurray.

One of the beautiful things about last night was the passion and intensity displayed by residents on all sides of this issue. They spoke of their hopes and dreams, why they live here and what they believe is best for this place. In a place too often accused of apathy this was direct evidence that we are anything but apathetic. Like proud parents we are ferociously protective of our community, and we all want what is best for it. And like proud parents we may on occasion differ as to what is best for our child. The important point is, though, we all want a bright and vibrant future for Fort McMurray, no matter what approach we take. I genuinely hope the passion and intensity I witnessed last night is not a fleeting moment in our history but instead a taste of what is to come, a future where our citizens are engaged and eager to contribute to the fabric of our community - because just as we need a revitalized downtown core so too do we need those engaged citizens to re-energize this entire community.

One of the other things I have done over the past few months is learned a lot of local history. I have even had the chance to meet members of families who made that history, people like Ken Hill whose parents helped to form this community into the place it is today. And while I met those people and spoke to them I have thought of how this community has changed. I have been at centennial celebrations for a school district and an RCMP detachment. I thought about all the bold decisions along the way, decisions that at the time must have been controversial and divisive. Communities aren't always born by complete consensus and everyone agreeing this is the right path and with total happiness, people. Community building is a messy process, full of dissension and watershed moments - and decisions that define us and who we will become. I suspect along the way there were arguments about developing new schools and shopping malls and recreation centres and roadways. I suspect there were always those who accused others of thinking too small while there were those who accused others of grandiose dreams. And yet here we are today, in 2013, a community that is not perfect - and yet that is home to tens of thousands, imperfections and all. Somehow we survived all those decisions and just kept on going, coming together to build this community. And so too we will do right here and right now in 2013, because this community is on the brink of yet another change, and we are moving into the future together.

I want to thank every single resident who spoke at council last night, or expressed themselves in a newspaper, on a Facebook page, a radio show, or any other way. You have shown you give a damn about our future, no matter what view you hold, and that expression of your opinion gives me tremendous hope for a future with a committed, engaged, and vibrant citizenry. I want to thank mayor and council for bearing the responsibility for these decisions, because I know that it must some days feel like a heavy weight to carry - and yet they do so with courage. I want to thank this community for being a place that continues to change and grow, because stagnancy, not dissension, is the true enemy. And at this watershed moment in our history I want us to think now about how we come together to continue to build this community - and I don't mean by building arenas and the like. I mean how we continue to build the fabric of this place so that it becomes the backdrop for those arenas and civic centres, the shopping malls and the like. A very smart man has said that history will judge us because we are one of the few places in this world in almost complete control of our destiny - we have the resources, we have the energy, and we have the spirit. We have the opportunity to determine who we will be, which is a pretty unique set of circumstances. Today, on April 10, 2013, I believe we move into the future together and I believe together we will change the face of Fort McMurray forever. And this, this moment in time, is an exciting and humbling place to be. This place, this Fort McMurray, is my home - and I cannot imagine any other place on this planet I would rather be.

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