Fort McMurray sees businesses closing, but community 'healthier' overall, report says

Fort McMurray has lost 20 per cent of its businesses since 2015, according to a report released by the Oil Sands Community Alliance.

'It's safer and generally a better place to raise a family,' says Oil Sands Community Alliance policy analyst

The Wood Buffalo Brewing Co. sometimes had a lineup out the door when it first opened. The pub shut down earlier this year. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Fort McMurray has lost 20 per cent of its businesses since 2015, according to a report released by the Oil Sands Community Alliance.

The number of businesses has been trending down in many communities across Alberta, including Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat and Edmonton, the report said. But the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo saw a decrease that was more than double the provincial average.

The region was hit hard in May 2016 when a massive wildfire burned down hundreds of homes and buildings and forced the evacuation of the entire population.

"In general, the decline in oil prices has affected business establishments in all of Alberta, but specific to Wood Buffalo the wildfire has also impacted that," said Shafak Sajid, policy analyst for community alliance.

Businesses face high rents

Sajid said some businesses have cited high commercial rents as the reason for closing.

Bryce Kumka, president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, said high commercial rents have been an issue in the region for 15 years. 

And though 20 per cent of businesses have closed, he said, many new ones have opened. 

"Where we've had some failures, we've also had some new entrants to our region," Kumka said. "Some as recently as the last couple of weeks."

He said the population is significantly lower than it was in 2015, and there are fewer people out shopping.

"Globally we're seeing a lot of pressure in changing buying habits that's having impacts on local businesses in many communities. We're not immune to that. We're working hard as a region to improve our image and tell people about the livability of our community."

The alliance released its 2019 Sustainable Community Indicators report last month. The report examined more than 32 different indicators, including education, housing and the economy, in an attempt to measure quality of life in the community. The alliance released similar reports in 2006, 2011 and 2015.

Sajid said the latest report shows that Wood Buffalo has become "healthier" than it was in 2015. 

"It's safer and generally a better place to raise a family," she said. 

Though the population has declined, more people who take jobs in the region now make their homes in Fort McMurray, rather than flying in and out, the report said.

The average cost of a single-family home in Alberta's oilsands region was $571,000 in 2018, down significantly from the $764,000 average in 2014.

Mayor Don Scott said in an email that the report "outlines some of the changes we have experienced as a region over the past few years and speaks to the economic and other challengers we face together."

"The report also touched on some of our many strengths and advantages as a region, positives that make me feel optimistic about what we can do to sustain and grow our communities in the years ahead."

The report will be shared with the Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation and the municipal and provincial governments.

Sajid said the economic development corporation will use the information to market Fort McMurray and build a brand for the region. 

The report found that Fort McMurray had the shorter emergency room wait times than Edmonton, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie.

The average wait time in Fort McMurray was just over 90 minutes, while in Edmonton the average wait was almost four hours.

Kumka said the chamber of commerce plans to market Fort McMurray as a great place to live. 

"We're working hard to tell people what Fort McMurray is really like," he said.