Where else but in Fort McMurray can you go for a swim in the Syncrude aquatic centre, workout in the Total fitness centre, go for a skate at the Canadian Natural Resources arena and take in an Aerosmith concert at Nexen CNOOC stage at Shell Place?

The northern Alberta community is not only the focal point of the oilsands, it's also the beneficiary of a hefty amount of donations and sponsorship from some of the world's largest energy companies that operate in the region.

Take the city's recreation complex which is currently undergoing a $127-million expansion project. Just about every venue is sponsored by an energy company at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre. Construction is nearly complete on Shell Place, an expansion that will dramatically increase the size of the recreation facility, on the west side of Fort McMurray's downtown.

Massive corporate support

"It's so different from when I was younger," says Katie Kirschner, who was born and raised in Fort McMurray. She's at MacDonald Island Park at least five times a week spinning, swimming, or running. "It's a place for anyone to do pretty much anything."    

All the corporate support has helped create one of the best recreation facility in the country. The facility already features arenas, curling sheets, swimming pools, and gymnasiums. There's even a public library, art gallery and indoor children's playground.

MacDonald Island Park features
  • 18-hole golf course
  • 4 baseball diamonds
  • 6 tennis courts
  • hiking trails
  • rugby field
  • 2 arenas
  • 8 curling sheets
  • fitness centre
  • child activity centre
  • skate pond
  • 2 field houses
  • indoor track
  • indoor playground
  • 2 pools
  • 2 water slides
  • lazy river and water park
  • banquet rooms
  • public library
  • art gallery
  • football stadium
  • baseball stadium
  • badminton centre

The expansion is already leading to more entertainment for the oil boomtown, with the community expected to host two CFL games this year and an outdoor concert by rock band Aerosmith.

"We've come to refer to this as the heart of the community," says Theresa Wells, a spokesperson for the leisure centre. "That might sound like a hokey nickname, but it really is true. Anyone who lives in this region eventually spends time at MacDonald Island Park."

The expansion will add a football facility, a baseball stadium and 
a badminton centre, among other features.

"I get to tour people from all over the country and all over the world through our facility and frequently what people say is they have have never seen anything like it before," says Wells.

The massive facility is supported mightily by the energy industry. All of that oilsands corporate support remains, despite the sharp fall in oil prices in the last year. Wells says the centre is "very fortunate" that the expansion project has also been immune to funding cuts, since construction began before the oil market price crash. 

Other projects in the community could face delays, such as the proposed 7,000-seat downtown arena.

As companies in the region reduce their workforce and cut spending, the rec facility offers a distraction for those people worried about their jobs and livelihood.

"There may be economic realities outside our doors, but this is the place in our community where people come to have fun, to enjoy leisure time. They leave those things behind and they go swimming, and go curling and go skating and enjoy their time in our facility." 

MacDonald Island park is a one-stop shop in the community for recreation, sport and entertainment. It tries to offer a range of activities for everyone in the region, whether they live in Fort McMurray, a neighbouring community, or a work camp.

"A lot of places will have something like the Syncrude aquatic centre, or the oilsands curling club or arenas, but very rarely do you find all of those things housed in spot, under one roof," says Wells. "We believe we are the largest recreation centre in Canada and that was actually before the addition of Shell Place."

Newcomers, like Gavin Allen, are often taken aback by the sheer size of the leisure centre. Allen has become a regular since moving to Fort McMurray from Ontario about 18 months ago.

"It's a great, healthy place to meet people and just get better engaged with the community," says Allen.