Thursday, April 11, 2013
Fort McMurray's Downtown Redevelopment Plan...or Why I Can Always Count on Politicians to Bring Out My Inner Skeptic
A couple posts ago I mentioned about the recent demo of the Oil Can, a local drinking establishment that's had a pretty colorful history. Its pending demolition is but a small part of a redevelopment plan for Fort McMurray's downtown core. The scope of this project is in a word, massive and I only fully realized this over the weekend after perusing a study proposing nothing less than a complete overhaul of downtown. Part of the plan in revitalizing downtown is a proposed civic area, much needed and overdue I should add. Initially I suspected this would take the shape a pedestrian mall or some other outdoor area but no. It seems council has it mind to build a rather monstrous arena capable of seating 6000-7000 people in this block. Yes, I know, my biases are starting to show and I've just barely reached the end of the first paragraph here. (And of course, this new office tower-like structure which sits where the Oil Can once did just has to be brown brick. It not like the brown brick federal/provincial building directly across the street isn't already an eye sore. Typical government planning for you. Yes, we know one ugly building wasn't enough, so we decided to give you extra.)
To be fair, geography and history haven't been kind to our downtown when it comes to its development over time. I'm hard-pressed to think of another city of comparable size whose downtown consists of just one main street. Interestingly, someone, no doubt a politician, decided to name our main drag Franklin Avenue, after the failed northern explorer. I'm not sure if they were being cautiously optimistic by doing this or if they just had a warped sense of humour. Anyhow, I digress.
As I mentioned, redevelopment is much needed and I appreciate that this city (and this city block) has undergone tremendous changes (even in the short time I've lived here). Fort McMurray's first drugstore (which now sits in our local heritage park) used to sit on Franklin along this block. So it's not like buildings haven't come and gone before. I also appreciate that change must happen if the city is to attract more residents and have them stay long-term rather than just see them as part of the so-called "shadow population".
I've heard a lot of negative opinion about the arena project so I rather surprised (or perhaps I shouldn't be) to learn that city council voted to go ahead with the plan. Leaving aside the fact that I get the distinct impression this was always going to be a done deal, no matter what, I think this arena will only make more of a mess of traffic downtown. Various proposed solutions to garner enough parking don't have me convinced this is a good idea and if I've heard it correctly, a traffic feasibility study hasn't even been completed. To be fair, there are plans to redevelop some of the arteries into downtown but it seems the cart is being put before the proverbial horse here as this arena is slated to be opened for 2016. I'm not saying an arena is a bad idea in and of itself, but its proposed location just seems wacky, for lack of a better word. Nearby MacDonald Island (home of the largest rec. centre in Canada, I shamelessly add) would seem a much more logical location to me anyway.
The other problem I have is the expropriations that will take place to acquire the rest of needed space. Affected by this are an A&W, The Keg restaurant and a law office. I'm pretty sure the law office was represented at the council hearing last night. Normally I don't care for lawyers, but having read the argument posted on another blog, I have to say this lawyer actually makes a lot of sense. So along with a law office, our downtown will be losing two eating establishments in a town that is already hard-pressed for eating out. Plus, and this is where my upbringing as a child of business owners kicks in, I just don't like the idea of public officials having these God-like powers to boot out businesses. Its not like council members will be out of work the day after the expropriation order goes through. (I should add that, to their credit, two councillors saw fit to vote against this insanity. Councillors Meagher and Kirchner, you have my vote in the next election.) We already have Mac Island (for conventions, civic events, and sport) and the Casman Centre, where our Junior A team plays so another major venue just seems a tad superfluous.
Sorry, but if the city wants to encourage me to spend more time (and I also assume, money) downtown, this arena plan just isn't going to do it. Another large rec centre is in the works not too far from where I live here in Thickwood so odds are I'd be much more likely to use that one then to venture downtown. Plus, we also have Mac Island and the Casman Centre. Really, how many ice surfaces does a city of 80,000 need?
Speaking of Mac Island, I know there was a great deal of controversy surrounding its construction with all the delays and the workers camp that sprouted up there to accommodate all the needed workers. I've heard it argued, that, hey, there were a lot of naysayers that said the idea of a rec. complex on MacDonald would never fly, but look at it now. So apparently, this arena project will turn out just the same. But just because things turned out positively in the case of Mac Island doesn't, in my view, mean it will happen again here. Much different circumstances and issues this time around, so its an apples versus oranges kind of argument to me.
I'd like to hope I'm wrong about this. Really, I would. but my inner cynic just has me thinking otherwise.