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City leaders strive for a kinder, gentler Fort Mac

An industrial area of Fort McMurray, Alta.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Fort McMurray wants to transform itself from boomtown to hometown.

The hub of Canada's oil sands activity is often associated with back-to-back work shifts, some of the priciest housing in the country, and moneyed young tradesmen from around the world with little to do but party and buy souped-up trucks. Fort McMurray is a busy, traffic-clogged small city surrounded by northern Boreal forest, growing oil sands megaprojects and camps that house tens of thousands of transient workers.

The region – which will see its 120,000-person population grow by more than 100,000 by 2030 – continues to struggle under the weight of rapid oil sands development.

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But municipal leaders in the northern Alberta region are envisaging a kinder, gentler Fort Mac, where workers want to stay and raise their families instead of simply making money and going back home. They argue that a more stable and permanent work force will help oil sands companies rein in the region's high labour and turnover costs.

"To have a region that will help attract the workers that oil sands companies need, we need to provide a world-class city with a great quality of life, a place new residents will call home," said Dennis Vroom, manager of industry relations for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the massive municipal jurisdiction that covers Fort McMurray and much of the Athabasca oil sands region.

Upgrades to the already sizable recreation centre and a downtown revitalization are under way. The construction of a major sports and entertainment venue is being considered. Fort McMurray International Airport (which now offers non-stop flights to Las Vegas) was built for 250,000 travellers a year, but saw one million pass through its gates in 2013. It will be getting a much-needed new terminal in 2014, according to Mr. Vroom.

Average Fort McMurray house prices surpassed Vancouver's for a couple of months in mid-2013 but Mr. Vroom said the city's plan to expand its land base and build different types of housing – including stylish riverfront townhouses – will stabilize what has become a "fairly absurd" real estate market.

The city's hidden charms will get more attention. A development plan for the quiet Snye waterway system will bring a "Rideau Canal-type feel to Fort McMurray in the wintertime," said Mr. Vroom, who spoke at the 11th Annual Canadian Oil Sands Summit in Calgary on Tuesday.

Work camps, some of them holding as many as 8,000 workers, are being built alongside far-flung oil sands mine and in-situ sites, putting a strain on municipal services such as ambulances and waste water treatment, according to Mr. Vroom.

He said the municipality predicts that operating expenses for oil sands companies will exceed capital expenses by 2017. The companies, he said, would be wise to find cost savings in areas such as recruitment, retention and training – all of which would come with a community-based staffing model as opposed to a camp-based one. "A healthy oil sands sector is good for everybody," he added.

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However, it appears work camps will continue. The Alberta government allows oil sands companies to deduct, from their royalty payments to provincial coffers, the costs of wages, benefits, training, travel and accommodations for employees dedicated to project operations.

The government is working on establishing more centralized sites "that can accommodate one or more camps on high ground, away from water bodies, historic sites, within 30 minutes driving distances to project areas, and where no mineral development is planned over the next 15 to 20 years," Alberta Environment spokeswoman Nikki Booth said Tuesday. "This reduces the environmental footprint."

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