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Tess Vigeland: At the opposite end of the spectrum from Memphis, you will find the boomtown of Fort McMurray. It’s in Canada, where the unemployment rate is 7.9 percent, 2 percentage points lower than the U.S.
The hamlet is located in Alberta, near a vast deposit of oil sands, and it sports the second largest petroleum reserve outside of Saudi Arabia. Lots of jobs, lots of money. So what on earth is there to complain about? Sean Cole reports.
Sean Cole: Fort McMurray is rambling little hamlet way up in northeast Alberta on the Athabasca River. If it weren’t for the oil sands, it would never be as bustling — and as moneyed — as it is.
I landed on a Sunday and wandered over to the Peter Pond Shopping Center where I met Auguste Thibodeau. He’s the stereotype of an oil sands laborer: A guy from eastern Canada who couldn’t find work back home. Lives in temporary housing north of town; lies back to New Brunswick when he can.
Auguste Thibodeau: It’s just I don’t like the rush of this place, eh. Everybody’s in a rush it’s a rat race.
Cole: It’s about the money.
Thibodeau: It’s about the money exactly. You know what I mean? Where you have money you have problems, right?
Like drugs he says. Crack and alcoholism. Of course, where you have money you also have money.
Thibodeau: There’s people that’s got university degrees that don’t make the money that a person can make here, right, in a year right? They pay me 2,000 a week here, clear in my pocket.
This is the usual depiction of Fort Mac — a gold rush-style boomtown where transient workers parachute in for lavish wages and questionable entertainment. And you better make a lot of money if you want to buy property here. A mobile home can run you nearly half a million dollars. Most every job here is somehow connected to the oil sands, directly or indirectly. About 80,000 people live here permanently on top of all the temporary folks, which means, of course, a really long wait at the drive through coffee chain.
Cole: Is the line for Tim Horton’s always this long?
Toby Krekowski: Oh yeah. It’s short today.
Cole: Is that right?
Krekowski: Aaaaaaaaaah! Short today man! Yeah.
Toby Krekowski is another laborer at the mines. He’s lived here for all of his 36 years.
Cole: What was it like 36 years ago?
Krekowski: Lot better than it is now!
Cole: How so?
Krekowski: Calmer. More of a family town. Now it’s, you know what I mean, it’s a boomtown, so it’s overcrowded, the infrastructure’s behind, right? So it’s…
Cole: They’re not keepin’ up with the pace of the growth.
Krekowski: They’re not keepin’ up with the pace of the growth. No. Not at all.
Cole: Is this a boomtown?
Philip Cooper: It’s not a boomtown in terms of the stereotypical 1870s boomtown of the Wild West. That we are not.
Philip Cooper is director of communications for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, in which Fort McMurray sits. He doesn’t dispute that they’re not keeping up with the growth. In fact, when the recession hit…
Cooper: One of our key messages, for quite a while there, is that we welcome slowdown.
Cole: That is the first time I have ever heard the sentence, “We welcome the slowdown.”
Cooper: Yeah, yeah. Well welcome to Fort McMurray. Typically, a 3 percent growth rate for any city across North America would be considered, “Wow, what a great place we’ve got!” We’re growing at nine. So that’s outrageous. You cannot function. You cannot plan. You cannot administer city services with that kind of growth.
But this isn’t the story he wants me to tell. People are coming here and putting down roots, he says. It’s already a stable community, and the more the town stabilizes, the better chance it has of sticking around after there’s no fuel in the ground anymore.
Cooper: That has been the experience of American cities. For the most part, North American cities are built around initial natural resources and then over time with changes in technology, changes in lifestyle, changes in society, they evolve into something different.
Sara Dorow: I think that imagining a diversification of that economy and of that locale that would not be tied into oil is really difficult.
Sara Dorow teaches sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She’s part of a team researching community issues in Fort McMurray. And she says most of the locals they talk to imagine the city will be either gutted in 70 or 80 years, or it’ll be a primo destination for environmental researchers developing new clean-up technologies.
Dorow: I find it fascinating it’s either a dust bowl or we have to be some kind of center of environmental excellence. Because I think most people know that most diversification in the area is, at this point anyway, going to be tied to oil sands development.
Of course, all of this is way down the road. In the here and now, town officials are touting more concrete projects — like this new, huge recreation facility at McDonald Island Park. The mayor insisted that I go there. It’s nice. Big ol’ hockey rink, tennis courts, a guy hanging out by the tennis courts playing guitar. He wouldn’t give me his name, but he’s a bus driver for the oil companies — and he’s from the east and lives in temporary housing.
Man with guitar: Fort McMurray’s a very nice town, you know? That’s… didn’t what I heard.
Cole: Oh, you heard bad things about the town?
Man with guitar: Oh you know, you hear about the pollution, you know what I mean? It’s not a nice place. Ta ta tee ta ta taw. When I came here I was very surprised about the town. It’s a nice little town.
He said he liked the rush of the place, how busy it is. And then he played me a song.
Man with guitar singing “Happy Together” by The Turtles
I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace.
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