Despite a struggling oilpatch and the devastating wildfires of a few years ago, Fort McMurray is aggressively sending the message out to retailers that it is open for business and it’s an optimal time to explore and invest in the northern Alberta city.
Kevin Weidlich, President and CEO of Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation, said investment opportunities exist in Fort McMurray and now is the time to take advantage of these as the city has ideal conditions currently for retailers to set up shop and thrive.
“Our region is ready and positioned for growth,” he said.
The region boasts many factors that make it a prime location for retailers – an unemployment rate that is lower than the Alberta average, high levels of income, elevated spending per capita compared to other jurisdictions, a young population, accessibility to labour and perhaps most importantly plenty of serviced, commercial land available for development which has come on stream only in the last few years.
“We’re still a pretty vibrant community. There’s still a lot of work and business that goes on in Fort McMurray,” said Weidlich.
“We don’t have as many retail stores, particularly the larger international brands and national brands, that other communities in Alberta have and we wonder if that’s because of a misperception of the opportunity that’s here. Our goal is to attract much more retail investment in the community. Some $435 million a year actually drives down the highway and is spent in other municipalities in the province, namely the Edmonton metro region. We’d like to capture some of that.”
“And that number is still only a small percentage of the actual leakage that is leaving our community when you consider airport flight leakage and other activities as well. So there’s still a pretty strong spending capability in the region. Those that are willing to take the risk and invest quickly will see a payoff. As with all things, if you’re the first in, you’re going to be successful.”
The Wood Buffalo region is home to 111,687 people, with 73,974 people living in Fort McMurray, the region’s urban service area, and 37,713 living in rural hamlets or work camps. The community is one of the youngest in Canada with 47 per cent of the population between 20 and 44 years old and a male to female split of 54/46 per cent respectively. Despite popular belief, Fort McMurray is a well-balanced community with young families who have chosen and continue to choose to make this region home, says the economic development corporation. And the fastest growing segment of the population is in the 12-year-old and under age bracket.
The region has the highest spending power in Canada with an average household income of $211,748 and an average discretionary income of $112,416 (more than double the respective averages for Canada).
In the past, the region was land locked by crown-owned land. Today, it no longer suffers from a land shortage. In fact, two large land tracks have been released and serviced to accommodate up to 44,000 people and large-scale commercial development as Fort McMurray positions itself as being ready for future growth. In addition, 36 acres of highway commercial and 147 acres of commercial lands located near the airport are ready to accommodate new development.
Lisa Sweet, Director of Business and Investment Attraction for the Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation, said this means Fort McMurray is now able to accommodate growth in retail.
“We have space for retailers to locate, which was not the case a few years ago. We currently have active commercial developments and future developments coming online,” she said.
“We want to spread the message that Fort McMurray is open for business. Times have changed in that we have land available now and there are opportunities to locate. One of the reasons we don’t have the retail brands that we’d like to have is because in the past we didn’t have the land available or the development opportunity available for them.”
Downtown revitalization is also a priority in the Municipality’s 2018-2021 Strategic Plan. Two committees have been created; the Downtown Revitalization Advisory Committee and the Waterfront Advisory Committee to help advise Council on matters that affect the public, giving residents a chance to provide input to decision-makers in local government. These committees will make recommendations to Council on matters pertaining to downtown revitalization.
“Our downtown is ripe for revitalization,” said Weidlich.
The Municipality has also taken advantage of the economic slowdown and oversized its infrastructure (water/sewer/roads) over the past five years, in an effort to position itself to accommodate more than double its current population. Highway 63 has been twinned, making it much safer and quicker for delivery of goods. And an international airport also opened in 2014, accommodating over 600,000 passengers annually and the ability to accommodate air cargo.
“One of the biggest questions that companies will ask us when they come here because Fort McMurray has been such a successful town is accessibility to labour. At a time, we were actually at maximum capacity for our labour force, many workers were living in work camps and it was tough to find labour because the industry was paying so well,” said Weidlich.
“In recent years this has changed because it’s easier for people to move to Fort McMurray. Housing prices have declined so now the average single-family dwelling is $530,000 which is not much more than say Edmonton or Calgary would offer. Condominium and rental prices have also significantly dropped such that housing is more affordable now. So that also means that retail labour can actually afford to live and work here and that also means that accessible labour now exists. When we were at a boom time it was tough for retailers to find reliable staff. That’s not the case today. Now retailers can find reliable staff.”