Fort St. John

The Energetic City

Located along the Alaska Highway, Fort St. John has come a long way since its debut as a trading post in 1794 (as the oldest non-native settlement in the province). Still a relatively small city in north-eastern British Columbia—with a population of 20,000—Fort St. John is now known as ‘The Energetic City,’ reflecting its driving industries. “Fort St. John is at the centre of B.C.’s oil and gas industry, which makes it the energy capital of the province,” says Mayor Bruce Lantz. “Most of the firms that do work in the oil patch are either headquartered here or have branch offices here.”

In addition to the large resource base of oil and natural gas, Fort St. John also boasts significant forestry and agriculture industries. “We have a large Oriented Strand Board (OSB) plant here, which is the most modern plant of its kind in the world,” adds Lantz. “The city is also in the middle of an agricultural area—the largest left in British Columbia.”

Anyone can see that there’s a lot of work to be done in Fort St. John, but the city offers more than industry; it also offers community. “The Energetic City has a double entendre,” the Mayor maintains. “The overarching message is clearly about oil and gas, but you can also see a sense of energy in the people. When I moved here in 1995, I felt the community’s can-do attitude.”

Originally from Nova Scotia, Lantz moved to British Columbia when he was 29 years old. He travelled around the province for his media job, and when he arrived in Fort St. John on a two-year contract, he decided to stay indefinitely. “I liked the people,” he says. “Virtually everyone has a strong sense of community and works hard to make the city better.” As for becoming Mayor, Lantz said he was talked into politics before he was about to retire. “I decided to start at the top and work my way down,” he laughs, “so I ran for mayor and was elected.”

The commitment to community that attracted Lantz was particularly important for Fort St. John. “When I first came here, it was a transient town, as most oil and gas towns are. There used to be a 20 per cent turnover in population every year,” he says. “It’s hard to have a sense of community when so many are coming and going every year. Today, that number has dropped to less than five per cent. We have become a town of families who are choosing to stay for the long haul, rather than having the men come and work in the oil patch for a few months and go back home. We have more amenities than ever before, both recreationally and culturally.”

‘Music is all around’

When Mayor Lantz talks of cultural amenities, he emphasises a new phenomenon in his city and that is its musical interests.  “We actually declared ourselves the music capital of northern B.C.,” he laughs. “We have a thriving music industry here; you can go out on any given day and hear live music in coffee shops, restaurants or theatres. The city has large venues that feature both local and national musicians. We’re on a circuit that has bands coming from all over—they play in Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, Calgary and Fort St. John! It’s different, of course, because there aren’t thousands of people, but bands love how much people appreciate their music.”

“For example, Sean Ashby, who plays guitar and records with Sarah McLachlan, comes here a lot,” Lantz continues. “Dayna Manning, Canadian folk and pop singer-songwriter, has also moved here. There are lots of others. Music is all around—it’s a good counter balance to oil and gas.”

Moving forward

Fort St. John has seen a long history with ups and downs. The city’s economy took off in the 1970s, when oil and gas became its major industry. Then National Energy Program policies punctured a hole in the balloon in the 1980s, and the economy took a downturn. “We have fought our way back,” says Mayor Lantz,” and we are now among the most prosperous cities per capita in the province. We saw some minor impacts in the recession, but we did well, thanks to oil and gas. Our unemployment rate is a little over four per cent. We’re not complaining.”

There’s not much to complain about when the city has been growing steadily at 2.5 per cent per year for the last decade. “There’s no sign of change in that number,” smiles Lantz, “unless it’s an increase.” Growth in population has meant the need for more infrastructure, which Fort St. John has been working on for the past decade. In addition to new roads, schools, a college and university program, and a recreation complex (with NHL-sized rinks and the second of two speed skating ovals in Canada), a new hospital is on the way.

“The $3-billion facility will be first new hospital in B.C. in 20 years,” says Lantz. “It will open in 2012.” According to a press release from the province’s Ministry of Health: “The new 15,000-square-metre, 55-bed hospital will provide 11 more acute care beds for the Fort St. John region and will include a 6,600-square-metre building for centralized food and laundry services. A new 123-bed residential care facility for seniors on the same site will share services with the hospital to increase operational efficiency. Both facilities will be built on 40 acres that was transferred to Northern Health by the City of Fort St. John.”

All of the commotion surrounding the city has certainly caught the attention of B.C. Hydro; in fact, the company is considering building a hydro-electric dam on the Peace River (a few miles west of the city). “The project would bring more economic and population development,” maintains the Mayor. “As a $7-billion project, it would employ 3,000 workers during construction phase. The government hasn’t said if it’s a go, but most are betting it will. We expect to hear within the month.”

A message from the Mayor

Before ending the interview, Mayor Bruce Lantz wanted to encourage fellow Canadians to stop by and pay Fort St. John a visit. “We love to see people come here,” he says. “Visitors will be welcomed warmly. Plus, there’s a lot to do. We are on the edge of one of the most unspoiled areas in Canada: the Muska-Kechika management area. It has 7.3 million hectares of wilderness that has no roads or development. There are trips available for hunters, fishers, photographers and horseback riders. You can enjoy the city here and be in the wilderness within a short drive. There aren’t too many places left like this.”