An inaugural five-year development plan for the region is focusing on supporting local businesses and attracting commercial vendors, while also promoting the potential in tourism.
The 17-page plan was released Aug. 25 by Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism (FMWBEDT). The organization’s president and CEO, Kevin Weidlich, says the first days of the plan will begin with promoting Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo as a family-friendly, multicultural community with plenty of opportunities for businesses.
Federal and municipal census data show that while the population is shrinking, much of it is among the oil-traveling workforce. Census data and school enrollment numbers also show that more people are choosing to stay in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo and start families.
The region also has the highest disposable household 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, this shows it’s safe for potential commercial developers looking at rooftops and households,” Weidlich said. “The strategic plan is a check that we are moving 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’re all tied together in what I call an authenticity strategy. Let’s market the region for what’s really real and true to Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo,” Weidlich said. “You’re going to see a lot more marketing of the region as a great place to raise a family through multiple channels.”
Developing a tourism sector is also a top priority for FMWBEDT. Northern Alberta has many opportunities for northern lights and outdoor tourism, says Weidlich. There’s also potential to brand the region as a strong hunting and fishing destination, and Weidlich says every lodge operator in the region is poised to expand.
FMWBEDT recently hosted David Goldstein, 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 developing and growing tourism in the north.
All these goals will require campaigns that attract developers and workers, and to help businesses and entrepreneurs find grants and other sources of funding. Not every mountain town is a tourist destination, for example, but those that do invest in what is 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 are 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 rejected in March, the FMWBEDT leadership committed to improving communication with the council, partners and the public.
FMWBEDT’s council and board of directors will hold quarterly meetings to discuss progress. There will also be quarterly reports that focus on accountability, transparency and clarity.
Startup YMM, a business mentoring 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.