Fort McMurray — Energy companies are tightening their belts in the oilsands, slashing budgets, scrubbing and delaying projects, and laying off scores of contract workers.
With oil hovering around $50 US a barrel, the bounce is suddenly missing from Fort McMurray’s step.
Hotel rooms, typically tough to find, are readily available. About $100,000 has been trimmed from the average selling price of a single, detached home in the past year. People are lining up at the food bank in numbers previously unseen. More staff is being hired and food drives are being planned in hope of keeping up with demand. More donations than ever are coming in, but nowhere enough, executive director Arianna Johnson says.
The municipality, which gets more than 90 per cent of its $600 million in tax revenue from oil and gas companies, is beginning to rethink key components of a $2-billion downtown revitalization project. There is grumbling about $2.2 million spent on a public art installation in a new public square called Jubilee Plaza, and controversy is brewing over a long-awaited seniors complex.
Even though the economy is lagging, Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake says the municipality is in a stronger position now than during the downturn in 2008-2009.
“We are farther ahead with our infrastructure. To me that is a very tangible benefit,” she says.
Blake, who came to Fort McMurray from Quebec at age 12 in 1982, has seen the region’s permanent population grow from around 30,000 people to 77,000, with tens of thousands more in temporary accommodations in the oilpatch.
“This isn’t so much a peak-and-valley scenario where we lose masses of our regular population,” Blake says. “Our permanent population remains stable. Then when the economy turns around again, we go back into robust development.
“This isn’t a ghost town and it’s not doom and gloom.”
Observations about the economy’s slide vary, from unfazed real estate brokers who have weathered them before to a hotelier hoping the worst is over so he is not forced to lay off foreign workers.