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

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Not the City of Broken Dreams

The letter is actually painful to read, because while the writer tries to write it in a detached way of "just the facts, ma'am", one senses the emotional connection he feels to the topic. It is a letter about a place I knew well, and one I was terribly sorry to see go, but it was in the name of progress and the future and this community. It is the letter from the owner of the former Longshots bar, a place that was the "local pub" for many of my friends, the location of many of our community "tweetups" - and the place I chose as the venue for a very special birthday celebration a couple of years ago.

Longshots was a staple of our community, the kind of place with good food and cold drinks and people who knew your name. It was the kind of place where I always knew someone, often knowing someone at every table in fact, making a visit the kind of occasion where you went from table to table talking and laughing.

Longshots was special, you see.

In 2013 the property on which Longshots stands was expropriated by the RMWB. I felt terrible for the owner and the staff, and for all the patrons, as I had written about the proposed expropriations months before they occurred. I talked to business owners from all over the downtown core, focused especially around the site of the proposed arena, and I heard their fears. They were anxious about their future, their businesses, where they would go and what they would do. I will never forget sitting down with one business owner and pulling out the digital maps on my iPhone and showing him the proposed expropriations, as he had no idea the properties around him were on the list, and he had no idea if it would impact him or not. It was a troubling time, but all along there was one bright spot, and that was that the expropriations were necessary to build for the future of Fort McMurray.

It was the bright spot I hung onto, clutched close as I spoke to worried business owners and as I watched buildings close their doors for the last time and auction off their goods. It was the promise that it would not be in vain, and that the sacrifices made by those businesses would not be in vain. And let's be honest, it was intensely painful for the people behind those businesses that loved them and cared for them, as small businesses are almost like a living and breathing thing, a child you birth and watch grow. For them and their staff and their patrons the only glimmer of silver lining was that this was, in the end, for the greater good.

How troubling it must be, then, to see these buildings sit vacant and abandoned, and to hear the plans stalled. How frustrating, not knowing who to blame or where to place your anger and disillusionment. How heartbreaking - and how difficult to pen a letter to the editor that tries to be brave but shows your pain and your suffering and your sadness. It is a letter, in fact, that brought me to tears.

Mistakes were made in Fort McMurray in recent years, and of that there seems to be no doubt. I won't lay blame, and I won't point fingers, although I suspect there is a lot of blame to be spread around and a lot of anger that could be shared - but the reality is this: we don't have the luxury of time to be angry and engage in blame. We need to take action.

I believe, of course, that the current civic audit needs to go ahead and we need to have a better understanding of what has been occurring behind closed doors - but I also firmly believe that now, more than ever, we need to find a way to acknowledge the mistakes, attempt to correct them - and then move on and build for our future, because we don't have a second to waste.

Our downtown core is suffering badly right now. Recently I wrote a blog post about the Penhorwood condominiums, decrying their state and demanding they be demolished. They stand there as a stark reminder of bad decisions and broken dreams, and soon I fear they will not be alone. Soon I fear they will be joined by dozens of other buildings in our downtown that will stand as solemn reminders of our past instead of transforming into the markers of our future. Over 12,000 people read my post on the Penhorwood condos, a number that I believe signifies the level of concern over these buildings and the legacy they have left on our community. I fear, though, that this legacy could become much darker if we do not choose to act, and soon.

Perhaps we need to start again. Perhaps we need to engage in some community discussions, and perhaps we need to have some talks about how our downtown should look, and where we want an arena, and what our waterfront should be for the maximum benefit of our community. Perhaps we all need to come to the table again and begin talking, but in order to do that we first may need to stop the shouting and realize that we cannot just tear down without building up. We are going through a catharsis right now, I think, one that brings with it massive change and a lot of possibilities, but one thing we cannot do is pretend that we have the time to simply do nothing - because we don't. We must continue to build, even if we build differently than before.

We all know that communities who neglect their downtown see them rot. We must recognize that we in Fort McMurray, with both a rapidly growing and a transient population, are at even greater risk of this rot, and we must address it immediately as we begin to develop some plans for the future. Maybe they won't be the same as the plans we had before, and almost certainly we will all need to be prepared to compromise as we move into that future, but the reality is that if we do not make some plans we are going to lose people in this community - and I speak from personal experience, because for the first time in twelve years I have begun to contemplate a future without Fort McMurray.

How it hurts me to write those words, because I love this place and it has become part of my heart. But I cannot stay here for years and watch it die, either, because I do not have it in me to watch something I love die. I have done that too often in my life already. I am not giving up yet, though, because I intend to stay and fight for our future, and for a place of which we can all be proud. I will not allow places like Longshots to be gone in vain, at least not without an attempt to do something about it, and so I remain committed to this place because this place is, in the end, my home.

I miss Longshots, you know. I miss all the little businesses that have closed, and the people I found in them. I miss them terribly, but I believe that their loss will someday be the sacrifices that allowed us to build an even better and stronger community - but not if we stay stalled in blame, anger and disillusionment. We need to find a way to move ahead, or we will be looking at far more than a boulevard of broken dreams, as I called Penhorwood recently.

If we do not act we will be in the middle of the city of broken dreams - and dear friends and readers, we simply cannot allow that to happen - because Fort McMurray cannot and should not be the place where dreams are broken. It should be the place where dreams are, instead, made real.

I believe we are a community of builders, and fighters. The time for fighting each other is over, though. The time has come for us to fight together, and build our future. It won't be easy. It might be painful. But we owe it to people like those from Longshots and all the other businesses now gone. But even more importantly, I think, we owe it to each other - and to ourselves.


  1. I moved here in 1997. Since that time I have attended 4 different community engagement sessions each envisioning an iteration of a downtown plan. Each with a new fancy name "Future Forward" "City Centre Redevelopment Plan" "Vision 2012" etc. And each attended by community leaders who earnestly brainstorm dreams of a beautiful downtown. We don't need *more* visioning sessions or a new plan. What we need is to get people who can execute a plan. DOERS, not Dreamers. Dreamers have their place, but they are very poor executers and if we are to get anything to move forward, gathering up the dreamers for a new dream isn't the way to progress.

    1. How do we move ahead without a plan, Jon? Doesn't the very process of continuing development require a plan in order for it to succeed? I agree that we need doers, but even those who do need to plan for it to be successful.

  2. Theresa, this post, like many of yours have taken the words right out of my mouth.
    I mourned for the loss of Longshots like no other patron in this city. I could walk in there and I would have a Keiths sitting on the table before I sat down most days.

    While it's true that we need action, a firm plan is necessary. A plan that is clear and concise and is also shared with the citizens of our fair city so that we don't feel like the wool has been pulled over our eyes.
    Once there is a solid plan, we attack it.

    Our city has this amazing potential to be beautiful, so lets forget the in-fighting. Let's forget the mistakes of the past and start the day fresh and clean and do what needs to be done so that the Penhorwoods and Longshots don't stand as headstones in a graveyard of lost dreams.

  3. You also don't need dreamers, you need realists. So many dreams of what can be and what will work in other, more typical cities, will never work in Fort McMurray.

    My wife and I decided to make Fort McMurray our home, and planned to stay for life, after a wonderful year working on a co-op.

    After almost a decade, we found that we struggled to keep our identity with the city, and it came to the point that we had to plan to leave. Not to move to be closer to family, just to move somewhere that opportunities exist without having to endure the shortcomings of too many people and not enough capacity.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Bob. I don't believe being a dreamer excludes being a realist. In fact, some of those who have dared to dream here have accomplished great things, such as Shell Place which is scheduled to open in 2015 and began as an idea which is coming to reality.

      I choose not to leave Fort McMurray and this is my home. I intend to leave it a better place than I found it because I think that is my responsibility. I believe one can do so by both daring to dream and carrying the dream from concept to conclusion.

  4. I find it fascinating that people seem to have an issue with the word "dream", as if a dream cannot become reality, or as if those who dream cannot be realists or "doers". Of course they can - as some of our boldest leaders who have achieved the most in this world have shown.

  5. Dream by definition is a part of sleeping.

    Conscious planning and creation of ideas is great and results in progress and tangible results, whereas dreams are better left to be forgotten when one wakes up.

    Expropriating property for dreams, one block away from where the dream towers should be standing now, will not result in much forward progress.

    1. There is another definition of dream, Bob:

      A cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal.

      These are the dreams I speak of, and I have been part of bringing things that were once "dreams" to reality in Fort McMurray.

      I think perhaps you have not really grasped what I was saying in this piece, and I am content to leave it at that.

      For me dreams do have value and are not better left to be forgotten as some of the greatest ideas in the world have begun as a cherished aspiration, ambition or ideal.