Build it and they will come

Sports and entertainment facility a catalyst project for Fort McMurray's new downtown

Enormous changes are in the works for Fort McMurray.

The once-sleepy community is about to blossom into a carefully planned urban centre with a vibrant core offering opportunities for recreation, culture and shopping—a place where people want to work and live. A vast number of projects are planned over the next nine years, with one of the first being a downtown sports and entertainment facility scheduled to open in time for the 2017 hockey season.

Expected to seat between 7,000 and 9,000, the facility will be used for spectator events involving sports and entertainment like concerts and family shows. While hockey will be the main sport, the venue will also be ideal for bonspiels and figure-skating exhibitions and championships, as well as for basketball and lacrosse. The ice will also be available for community tournaments, in addition to local schools and other groups that have competitive sports programs.

Between concerts, family shows and other events such as monster truck shows, trade shows, motocross and rodeos, there could be 100 spectator event days and about 150 activity days at the venue each year.

The downtown location has raised a few eyebrows, as evidenced by online comments. Some wonder about the wisdom of drawing thousands of people into the heart of the city when there isn't enough parking and roads are already crowded. But the decision was strategic.

"Across North America, there has consistently been a positive correlation between sports and entertainment facilities and the residential, retail and entertainment development in the community," says Ron Taylor, executive director of the City Centre Area Redevelopment Plan.

Taylor has been helping municipalities develop similar facilities for about 15 years and has seen the results first-hand. He was involved with Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont., a 9,100-seat facility that sparked the redevelopment of that city centre, as well as with a 5,200-seat facility that has helped fill restaurants and other establishments in downtown Kingston, Ont.

"Building a facility like this in the core is a proven and tested way of bringing more business and people into the area, and a catalyst to redevelopment. It helps to create a very vibrant downtown, and whenever you have lots of activity and people you have a much safer, more secure place," he says.

The facility will serve as an anchor for a retail and entertainment corridor along MacDonald Avenue. Not only will be approximately 30,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space around the perimeter, but there is significant opportunity for commercial development, which could be either office or hotel space.

The sports and entertainment facility will be built through a model that's becoming increasingly popular in the province: the public-private partnership (PPP). The municipality asked for expressions of interest and qualifications and chose four of the seven respondents to submit a request for proposal. The winning proponent will become the private partner in the PPP, responsible for designing, building and operating the facility.

"The majority of the facilities that have been built in the last decade or so have been built with the participation of the private sector in all or parts of the process," Taylor says. "Most cities will only build a facility like this once in every 30, 40, even 50 years, so they don't have the very specialized expertise that's required to design, build and operate an arena like this."

With projects like MacDonald Island Park and its expansion, some of the expertise required for recreational projects is already in Fort McMurray, but much of it will have to be brought in. But won't that be a problem in a city known for tight short- and long-term rental space, especially in light of all the other projects the city has planned, including improving transportation infrastructure, adding new multi-level parking structures, improving public spaces and building a new civic centre?

Taylor acknowledges that accommodation is a challenge, but he says that there are ways to address the issue, such as tying down block bookings of hotel rooms in new hotel developments. More hotel space is also in the works with several projects either in the approval stage or starting construction.

He is also optimistic that that they won't run into labour-shortage issues.

"The advice we're getting from the construction industry is that there will not be a problem getting materials or attracting labour. The economy is fairly slow across North America and, for that reason, there is a migration of trades in many of the sectors to Alberta and northern B.C. We're confident that we will have the labour necessary to build the facility and all the other things that are underway," he says.

In fact, Taylor believes that increased construction activity in Fort McMurray will make it easier to get projects completed on schedule and on budget. With more activity, suppliers of construction materials and services will be more inclined to set up business in the city, putting those resources on the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo's doorstep instead of hundreds of kilometres away.

Site preparation is likely to start in spring 2014, with construction getting underway in early 2015. The cost will be determined through the proposal process.

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