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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fort McMurray: The Five Year Plan

One of the very first pieces I ever wrote for publication was on the myth of the “Fort McMurray Five Year Plan”. It was all about how people may come to the community with an “end date” in mind, a “best before” kind of expiry date at which point they will pack up their bags and head outta Dodge – but how those plans often evolved into long-term residents who would still be here seven, ten and even twenty years later. It has actually been some time since I met a new arrival to our community who indicated they were here with a timeline in mind, a five-year plan and their departure date set. We too have evolved, becoming a place where people arrive without that end date in mind, thinking instead they will see how it goes, and for many when they find their place in the community they end up staying far, far longer than they ever thought they would.

I suppose I am an example of this. At thirteen years of residency this is now on the verge of being the longest I have ever lived anywhere, including where I grew up (Saskatoon). I lived in Saskatoon from the ages of 6-20, and those fourteen years mark my longest period of uninterrupted residency – but now I am on the brink of breaking that record right here in Fort McMurray.
The demise of the five year plan is no loss to me. This community desperately needs those who plan to come and stay for the long haul, through thick and thin, good times and bad. It needs those who are going to claim this as home, not a stopping place, because that investment in our community, both financial and emotional, is how we will build a strong community for all of us. But this week the five year plan showed itself again, and in a way I did not anticipate.

A couple of years ago I connected with a business person from another community who was looking at setting up shop in our region. They were quite excited about the prospect, looking for property, gauging the market, thinking about moving staff into the region to provide the manpower they would need – it was all very positive. I realized this week I had not heard from them in some time and so I picked up the phone and called them to see how the plans were coming along, and when we could anticipate their arrival.
I was stunned to learn they are no longer planning to come to Fort McMurray.

They shared their concerns with me, concerns about stalled developments, instability in the oil industry as evidenced by delayed projects, the uncertainty of pipelines...but most of all they indicated that they felt the mood of the region had changed. They said they no longer felt the motivation and drive they had two years ago, the desire to expand and build and develop. They had no doubt that initially their business venture would be a success, but it was not the initial success that worried them. It was the longterm success, the overall viability and the future of the people they planned to move into the community.
What was the five year plan for Fort McMurray, they asked?

My nemesis had once again raised its ugly head. The five year plan was back, but this time it was not one put into place by those coming to our community with a departure date penciled onto their calendars. This time it was potential investors in our region, those who had shown interest in becoming part of this community, dubious about our plans for the future.
I spent quite some time trying to convince them. I told them about all the great things coming, all the wonderful things happenings and sharing all the amazing positives about our community. And while they agreed that Fort McMurray is a terrific place with a great deal of potential they felt it was just not the right time for them to invest their time or money or people...and so they were looking instead at other communities and other places, where perhaps the initial success might not be quite as strong but where they felt confident in the five, ten and twenty year plan for the community.

We talked through the many reasons for their concerns. The one that bothered me most perhaps was their sense of the mood changing, of how their conversations with stakeholders that once left them brimming with confidence now left them feeling a bit shaky instead. And while this one business venture will not be the rise or fall of Fort McMurray I fear they may not be alone in their reluctance to invest in us, to contribute to building our community with their business, their resources and their people.
In the classic understated words of some astronauts who identified an issue: "Houston, we have a problem.”

Our ability to attract developers, investors and new business is crucial to our ability to succeed as a community. If we want to meet our tremendous potential we need to find a way to bolster their confidence in us, to see that we do have a plan for our community and our future. We cannot rest on the laurels of what we have accomplished and we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent, because in terms of communities complacency is deadly. I won’t pretend to have all the answers or to know the right path to address this – I simply know that someone who once was excited about investing in Fort McMurray is no longer interested, and this concerns me deeply because I fear they are not alone. I fear our current state, which sees abandoned and vacant buildings left to rot, new projects stalled out due to squabbles between different levels of government, some instability in our industry (however transient it may be) and our struggle to come to some sort of resolution on things like the development of our city centre as being sharply detrimental to our continued success as a community.
I have always hated the concept of the Fort McMurray Five Year Plan, at least in terms of a plan to leave our community after a short period of residency. This week, though, I realized that there are those who doubt we have a five year plan for our continued success and growth, and that it was hindering their ability to see their potential role in our future.

I believe in Fort McMurray, our future and our ability to develop a strong plan for it, and I know other residents of this community believe in it, too. Now we just need to find a way to make everyone believe just as we do – and to invest in Fort McMurray, far beyond a five-year plan.

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