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

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Lurking Storm Cloud Overhead - and What it Could Mean for Our Community

It was with deep concern that I read a recent article in the Edmonton Journal. I knew that this issue was looming overhead, like a lurking dark cloud, but I was hopeful that it would dissipate into a sunny summer sky like our storm clouds often do here in the north. This time, however, the storm cloud is not breaking up but rather coalescing and looking more and more ominous. I am growing increasingly concerned, because while the storm has not yet hit it threatens to do so, and the resulting impact could have devastating long term effects. The focus of this storm? The impending shortage of land lots and homes in the region.

The land is there, and ready to be developed. In fact services have already been arranged for many of these lots, and developers are ready. So what is the hold up? The roads to access them. There are at the present time about 40 lots still available. And while there is currently a lull in the real estate market this will not likely last should pipelines be approved and projects go ahead. It is estimated the need is for about 600 lots yearly, and without access to these areas waiting for development we are in trouble. Serious, serious trouble. Some of the access roads that would enable the opening of new neighbourhoods are not anticipated to come online until 2015 or even later - and by then it could be too late. Too late for what, you ask? For the community.

We are trying to build a community. We are trying to attract new residents, asking them to buy into the Fort McMurray dream. We are asking them to come here with their families, or to start their families here. We are looking for those who want to help us build this community, to create a place of wonder and beauty and opportunity. But we need one thing to truly get them here, to see this as a community and not a camp town. We need to make sure they have a place to live.

This is where I will likely go on a bit of a rant, so bear with me. Unfortunately the decision to neglect to fund these access roads in the provincial budget is typical of the short term thinking we have had to contend with in this community. If you look around and note the things we are lacking - infrastructure, and the rest - the reason we are currently suffering is because at some point in the past someone ignored the impending storm clouds and simply looked the other way. Our needs have been ignored or shuffled around or given lower priority despite our tremendous impact on the economy of this province. We have dealt with inadequacies of every nature, from not having a walk-in clinic until this past year (in my view an absolute absurdity given our size) to traffic jams foisted upon us due to road improvements that have been delayed and delayed until it was far too late to avoid problems. We are constantly looking in the rear-view mirror, seeing the "could have, should have dones", hampered by a lack of vision, foresight, and planning. And before anyone freaks out and starts penning hate mail (I got enough of that this week over the mere idea of moving a casino and a strip club, thanks) I am not talking about flooding the market with lots and driving housing prices into the ground. I own a home here too, and I am no more anxious than anyone else to see house prices drop dramatically - but I do believe we need to have enough lots to grow in a responsible and steady manner, allowing our population to increase and provide the homes we need.

Here is my fear. We will endure a shortage of homes. Families that would have chosen to move here will stay in their other communities, and not bring to us their skills, enthusiasm, and community spirit. Those who come here to work will instead stay in camps or hotels, leading to a burgeoning camp and transient population, and further weakening the sense of community building. All the work done in the past few years to build community will weaken, and falter - why build anything new, from retail malls to recreation centres, if we don't have the population to support them? We will face even more challenges, but perhaps insurmountable ones this time as we will lose residents who will never come here. We will lose momentum in our community building. And, in the end, we could fail to achieve our true potential.

Perhaps you think this is overly dramatic and too dire, but I disagree. I have long been saying we are at a pivotal point in our development as a community. I have been saying we are on the cusp of something truly amazing, something unique and wonderful - but so too we could be on the cusp of disaster. The thing about pivotal points it that they can go either way - up or down, into a future brimming with hope and optimism or into a future filled with regrets and wishes that we could have done it differently.

The storm clouds are gathered overhead. They are perched above us, and they appear to be growing darker. I realize that other storm clouds recently rolled through Alberta and left devastation in their wake, and that there is a financial price to be paid there to restore those communities. I advocate for them as they go about rescuing their communities from the damage the floods left behind - and today I advocate for my community, asking that the provincial government find a way to ensure the storm clouds above us do not bring on a disaster of another kind, not a natural one but rather one fueled by short term thinking. This community is being threatened by the growing storm. And while I am a bit of a storm junkie, someone who could easily become a storm chaser enchanted by wild weather and tornadoes, this is one storm I would rather see drift away, leaving behind a clear blue sky - and a community with sky-high potential to become something truly incredible.

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