Steven Niehaus struggles to attract an evening crowd to his Fort McMurray sandwich, soup and coffee joint.
It’s no wonder, he says: the city’s downtown core doesn’t offer much to pull in the after-work hours crowds his business needs.
“It’s not so bad during the daytime,” Niehaus, owner of Stacs Fine Food, said after managing the lunch rush. “But nighttime, it’s been super hard. It’s been a super struggle downtown. There’s really not much traffic going downtown at all.”
He’s excited that Wood Buffalo’s regional council has started soliciting proposals from organizations, businesses and citizens on what to do with land that was purchased and expropriated by the city and is now used as a parking lot.
In August, the municipality announced it is welcoming ideas through a requests for proposals process.
“They’ve got to put forward a plan that is both realistic, fits the space and is financially feasible going forward,” said Mayor Don Scott.
‘The whole town would be in bankruptcy’
The new process differs from six years ago, Coun. Phil Meagher said, when the municipality contracted high-priced consultants, then purchased and expropriated land downtown to build an arena.
“The arena, to me, was a big mistake,” Meagher said. “I didn’t think we had a solid plan going in.”
Back then, along with the arena, the municipality proposed a 600-stall parking structure, a hotel and a restaurant.The cost was estimated at $580 million to build, operate and maintain.
Municipal planners hoped the project would draw other businesses downtown and eventually to the waterfront along the Snye and Clearwater rivers.
“It was ridiculous,” Meagher said. “Having lived in Fort McMurray for over 35 years now, I have seen the ups and downs of the oil economy.
“And as soon as the bottom falls out, or heaven forbid, interest rates rise, the whole town would be in bankruptcy. That to me was not leadership. That to me was just dreaming.”
The municipality backed away from the development idea in 2015, when oil prices crashed and there was public backlash.
When Melissa Blake, the region’s longest serving mayor, announced she would not run for re-election in 2017, she identified the stalled redevelopment of downtown as one of the regrets of her 13 years in office.
Expropriation ‘affected a lot of people’
The city suspended negotiations with the arena proponent, International Coliseums, in the fall 2015, but couldn’t reverse the pain the expropriation caused.
The action was criticized by business owners and the public, and a provincial inquiry called the forced land purchase unfair and unsound.
An audit commissioned by the municipality concluded it lacked proper regulations and paperwork to support the land acquisition.
“Back when the land was expropriated, it affected a lot of people,” Coun. Keith McGrath said. “It affected jobs and the tax base.”
February 2012: Municipal council adopts the City Centre Area Redevelopment Plan which re-imagined the lower town site with new landscaping, street lighting, bike lanes, walking paths, a downtown arena, hotel and conference centre.
November 2012: City approves the expropriation of land for the arena and for road extensions downtown.
March 2013: City reveals it paid $28,733,274 to purchase or expropriate 17 properties to extend roads and develop the waterfront and arena.
September 2014: KPMG audit finds lack of documentation to support council policies or administrative procedures including for land expropriations.
October 2015: Council votes to place plans to build downtown arena on hold.
May 2016: Wildfire forces evacuation of Fort McMurray and destroys over 2,500 dwellings and structures. Afterwards, the municipality prioritizes the rebuild.
October 2017: Don Scott elected mayor of Wood Buffalo on campaign to revitalize the downtown core.
January 2018: Council approves strategic plan and lists downtown revitalization as a priority.
In an interview Wednesday, the mayor said he’s weary of those past decisions.
“I think governments don’t necessarily do a great job figuring out what a community should necessarily develop in a space,” Scott said.
‘It’s nice to have a second chance’
The municipality is giving proponents until November to submit ideas.
Meagher wants to hear proposals that call for using the area as an indoor farmers and craft market.
“It’s nice to have a second chance,” he said. “I think there’s some small towns and small cities that would like to have a redo of their downtown.”
“Our downtown does look dated. It’s going to take a lot of time and energy to get up to a 2020 facade.”
Restaurant owner Niehaus would also like to see the area used as a common area where families can gather or organizations can hold events.
Not a big arena or high-rent development, he said, which would only attract a limited number of tenants.
“Just a place where we can decompress for a while, because we are always so go, go, go in this town,” Niehaus said. “That’s what I would love to see.”