The economy was front and centre at a pre-budget town hall meeting in the oilsands capital of Fort McMurray Friday hosted by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Finance Minister Joe Ceci.

"I know things are tough in Fort McMurray," Notley said in response to Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake's question about "cracking the diversification nut." 

"I know this is ground zero," Notley said.

Notley said the Alberta government has made $2 billion available to small businesses to create jobs.

One Albertan asked why the government isn't making more cutbacks during a time when so many people are losing their jobs.

"We are not going to restore the price of oil by laying off teachers, by laying off nurses," Notley said to applause from the audience.

The trip is the premier's first to the oilsands region since her NDP government was elected last May.

CBC covered the event with reporter Laura Osman live blogging from Fort McMurray.

Fort McMurray's economy has been hit hard since the price of oil began its precipitous descent, resulting in thousands of job losses. 

Experts have predicted that the economy towers will over traditional budget concerns, such as health and education spending, with jobs, diversification and infrastructure spending at the top of the list.

Ceci has said he expects the economy to continue to slide in 2016, but could see slight growth in 2017.

The government expects to table a budget with a $10.4-billion deficit in early April, but Ceci has said he will not react to the crisis with layoffs or "knee-jerk cuts."

Friday's visit to Fort McMurray began with a tour of the Science and Tech Centre at Father Mercredi High School before Notley and Ceci met with the municipal council.

Following the town hall, the two will attend a roundtable with community organizations.