The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

An up-and-coming centre of industry

The discovery of the Alberta oilsands produced a period of economic prosperity for the province. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Alberta is one of Canada’s fastest growing communities. The municipality resulted from the amalgamation of 10 rural communities and the urban centre of Fort McMurray. It is now a rapidly developing industrial area in Canada, largely due to the overwhelming boom of the oil industry. The municipality now qualifies as one of the largest in Alberta and covers more than 68,000 kilometres, although it is very sparsely populated. Melissa Blake, Mayor of the municipality, spoke with The Canadian Business Journal about the area’s sudden growth and recent developments and the benefits of conducting business in Wood Buffalo.

The Athabasca oilsands

The Athabasca oilsands are at the core of the economic boom in Wood Buffalo. The oilsand is the largest in Alberta and is located in the municipality of Wood Buffalo, in the urban development of Fort McMurray. Alberta’s oilsands produce 1.5 million barrels per day and are the second largest source of oil in the world, following Saudi Arabia. In fact, Alberta now provides more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia. By 2019, it is expected the oilsands will produce 3.3 million barrels per day. This natural resource is the crux of what drives business and industry to the region and is the cause behind the explosive growth and expansion in recent years. It is a source of employment and income to many residents and draws people nationally and internationally seeking employment. This has a direct impact on other markets, such as housing, which has flourished from the region’s staggering growth.

The boom of Wood Buffalo

Blake notes the challenges of keeping up with such a massive influx of new people into an area. The population of the region in 1996 was about 34,000, while recent counts for 2010 put the number at 104,000. The necessity to keep pace with the explosive growth parlayed into necessary infrastructural improvements to roads, water and housing. There has been about $700 million pumped into improvements in recent years. For 2010, that includes a $1 billion budget being put into further improvements. These improvements encompass a broad range of projects for community improvement including sidewalks, bus shelters, water and sewer lines and a new RCMP building, among others. There was a massive development project completed this year at the water treatment plant, which was not equipped to deal with the population. The plant was transformed into a state-of-the-art facility that reclaims community wastewater and returns it to the environment with significantly improved effluent quality.

The necessity to grow along with the population extended into quality-of-life areas as well, as the onus was on Wood Buffalo to create and promote the municipality as an enjoyable place to life. The MacDonald Island Park Redevelopment is underway to accommodate the growing community needs of Fort McMurray. Upon completion this year, the facility offers a complete aquatics facility, an NHL-sized ice pad, a public library, two field houses, a 240-metre running track, a fitness facility, a children’s playground and child minding area, as well as an outdoor rugby pitch and golf course. Improvements such as these, Blake feels, are crucial to promoting Wood Buffalo as enjoyable place to build a life.

The infrastructure and amenities of Wood Buffalo are steadily catching up to its population increase. Says Blake, “We have experienced such an intense period of growth, the reactionary mode we are in should be replaced with good, solid planning and the ability to take on projects that will keep pace with that growth.” There is a sustainability checklist on the agenda, with a variety of projects on the forefront that will work in tandem with projected growth. For example, the issue of connectivity to provincial highways—which is instrumental to traffic flow and business—is a project of importance to the municipality.

Land development is a significant issue as well, and there is currently exploration of fringe areas of the region underway to determine which may be suitable for future urban development. Steadfastly improving and understanding this newly amalgamated municipality, Wood Buffalo is set for a prosperous future.

Attracting new business investments

Wood Buffalo is interested in attracting innovative new business to the area who can capitalize on its growth and success. The goal is to strengthen the region by attracting business and maintain it through efficient retention strategies. Developing partnerships between industries, private sector communities and governments supports a comprehensive and cohesive economic strategy for the future. Says Blake, “We are turning the corner. We have overcome many of the hurdles and challenges that came forward. We expect to be a driving force behind the economy.”

The foundation is in place for Wood Buffalo to be a sustainable business environment. Its taxation is among the lowest in the country and businesses are offered startup resources and land development information. Furthermore, Blake stresses, it is simply an enjoyable place to work and live. A warm, welcoming environment and a slew of cultural events make the region an easy place to settle. With a community of people committed to a high quality of life, Wood Buffalo is set for a bright future.