An inaugural five-year development plan for the region is focusing on supporting local businesses and attracting commercial retailers, while also promoting potential in tourism.
The 17-page plan was released on Aug. 25 by Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism (FMWBEDT). The organization’s president and CEO, Kevin Weidlich, says the early days of the plan will start with promoting Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo as a family-friendly and multicultural community with plenty of opportunities for businesses.
Federal and municipal census data shows that while the population is shrinking, much of that is among the commuter workforce of the oilsands. The census data and school enrollment numbers also show more people are choosing to stay in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo and start families.
The region also has the highest disposable family income in Canada, Weidlich said in an interview. There is agreement among residents and leaders in politics and business that Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo is “significantly underserved in commercial development.”
“For the direct benefit of impact and growth, that shows it’s safe for potential commercial developers who look at rooftops and families,” Weidlich said. “The strategic plan is a check that we’re rolling in the right direction.”
Weidlich also said FMWBEDT has supported the municipality’s application to join the Alberta government’s rural renewal stream. The program helps local governments recruit and retain immigrants to work and settle in their communities.
“We have our big goals, but they are all tied together in what I call a strategy of authenticity. Let’s market the region for what’s really real and genuine about Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo,” Weidlich said. “You’re going to see a lot more marketing of the region as a wonderful place to raise a family through many channels.”
Developing a tourism sector is also a top priority for FMWBEDT. Alberta’s north has plenty of opportunities for northern lights and outdoors tourism, says Weidlich. There is also potential to brand the region as a strong hunting and fishing destination, and Weidlich says every lodge operator in the region is ready to expand.
FMWBEDT recently hosted David Goldstein, the CEO for Travel Alberta, at Andrew Lake Lodge and gave him a tour of the region. Weidlich said Travel Alberta agrees there is potential for tourism development and growth in the north.
All these goals will require campaigns attracting developers and workers, and helping businesses and entrepreneurs find grants and other funding sources. Not every mountain town is a tourist destination, for instance, but the ones that are invest in what’s needed for tourism to thrive.
“The reality is you can’t market something you don’t have,” Weidlich said. “We in the region are spoiled because we’re so used to the great natural wonders of our region.”
The plan comes as the Fort McMurray Heritage Society also examines its tourism potential. The report comes after council approved FMWBEDT’s $4.16 million annual budget in July. After the funding was denied in March, FMWBEDT’s leadership committed to improving its communication with council, partners and the public.
Council and FMWBEDT’s board of directors will hold quarterly meetings to discuss progress. There will also be quarterly reports focusing on accountability, transparency and clarity.
Startup YMM, a business advisory program overseen by FMWBEDT that helps local small businesses get established, will also remain open. Weidlich says it will be a key part of FMWBEDT’s five-year strategy.