Fort McMurray business owners skeptical about ability to diversify economy

EDMONTON — For people who call Fort McMurray home, the change in the northern Alberta community has been immense; from a small town to a boom town, and now, it has become a place that has seen better times.

Fort McMurray has been at the mercy of global oil prices, so when it comes to diversifying the economy many locals are skeptical, noting that the community exists because of the oil industry.

“I don’t know that we can do a grand diversification. In Fort McMurray, we are oil,” said Jennifer Ross, who owns Original Basket Boutique, a home-based business she runs making gift baskets. “I don’t know what other industries would be sustainable in Fort McMurray because oil and gas pays the best.”

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Born and raised in Fort McMurray, Ross said she’s noticed the impact of the downturn but adds her business is still good.

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“For my business I find it fairly steady. I’ve got a good group of clients that continue. This year has been a little bit of a downturn but nothing that we can’t handle.”

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Karl Paetschke has owned The Fish Place, a local steak and seafood restaurant, for the past 19 years. He’s called Fort McMurray home for 33 years.

“The actual boom really only started in about 2003. Before that it was a pretty tough place here,” he said.

Noting a 30 per cent drop in business, Paetschke said he is hardly breaking even at this point.

“There’s only so much money to go around and a restaurant is a luxury,” Paetschke said.

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Last week, the province announced a new ministry, Economic Development and Trade. The focus is to diversify the province so there’s less reliance on oil. But when it comes to a community like Fort McMurray, can diversification actually happen?

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“It’s pretty hard, you know,” Paetschke said. “We have basically only one industry, oil production. How do you do it?”

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The deputy mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo acknowledges there’s no silver bullet for diversification in Fort McMurray but believes all levels of government should help using the human resources on the ground.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see Fort McMurray become a ghost town,” Tyran Ault said. “We have some of the smartest people in the world working in Fort McMurray with MBAs, engineers, things like that. If we can continue to grow on that, I think we’re going to be on the right path for continuing and keeping this region prosperous.”

Ross and Paetschke said when it comes to their businesses, they’re just taking it one step at a time.

With files from Vinesh Pratap, Global News. 

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