Businesses in the south end of Fort McMurray’s downtown gathered for the first Celebration on Centennial, an independent open house on Centennial Drive showing that businesses in the area are returning to normal.
Organizer Michela Gilchrist hopes the event will become an annual affair. Gilchrist, who co-owns Mr. E’s Solve-it-Torium escape room on Centennial Drive, feels upstart events like Celebration on Centennial will help downtown’s economy.
“I would love to see more opportunities like this, with the potential for food trucks and street closures, because it helps drive traffic,” said Gilchrist.
Downtown businesses were already struggling at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The April 2020 flood and last year’s collapse in oil prices worsened the situation for businesses, even as many tried adapting to the situation with varying degrees of success.
Dianna de Sousa, executive director of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, estimated roughly 10 per cent of local businesses closed in 2020. She hopes the empty storefronts and retail spaces will breathe new life into downtown’s retail scene.
“People are coming back,” said de Souza. “I think we are on the right path for revitalization, but I think it’s going to take a little bit more [from the municipality] to revitalize downtown.”
Celebration on Centennial arrives in the waning months of the municipality’s downtown revitalization plan. The three-year plan is ending this year. It includes the construction of the Kiyām Community Park at the former site of the downtown arena. A $5-million municipal grant program for renovations, expansions or murals for downtown businesses has so far created more than $9.35 million in investments downtown.
But downtown businesses still need help recovering from the economic problems of the past 18 months, said Amanda Haitas, the municipality’s senior manager with planning and development.
“We hope that with the new council they too will have a council plan or strategic plan that we are better able to understand what council and what our residents want,” said Haitas. “From everything I’ve experienced with council over the past year and a bit, they certainly have been supportive.”
The end of the municipal strategic plan coincides with the fall launch of a five-year economic development plan from Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism (FMWBEDT). Last year was challenging economically, but Kevin Weidlich, president and CEO of the FMWBEDT, said the region is in better shape than when he first arrived in Fort McMurray in 2019.
“Over the last two years the progress towards having a consistent and coherent vision and strategy for downtown has actually been very good, largely because [the municipality] has engaged with the community,” said Weidlich. “We are providing support to help entrepreneurs get out of their garage or their home-based business, and get their business to the point where they can lease and use commercial space and offer their products that way.”
Chantal Sharon, owner of pet supply and grooming business Charlie’s Choices, said downtown urgently needs help with recovery. Sharon said she chose to open downtown two years ago because she felt it was accessible for people living north and south of the Athabasca River.
“Downtown is my home, I was born and raised here,” said Sharon. “I love it, I won’t go anywhere else.”
Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today