The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has broken ground on a controversial park being built on land it originally acquired to be turned into an arena.
The Franklin and Main Park Project will take up the majority of a block in downtown Fort McMurray. Featuring a basketball court, playground and community event space, the $4.92 million park is expected to be completed in the fall.
Its completion will also mark the end of an eight-year journey that featured big civic dreams, hard economic realities and mixed emotions among downtown businesses that were affected by the municipal expropriation process.
The municipality purchased the land in 2013 as part of a plan to build a downtown arena.
The municipality expropriated five properties at a total cost of $34.1 million, which includes associated costs like legal fees and tearing the buildings down.
The municipality backed away from the idea in 2015, after oil prices crashed and it faced public backlash.
One of the buildings acquired by the city housed Longshots, a downtown bar co-owned by Gord Pederson. When he opened the bar in 2006, he knew there was a possibility the land would be wanted by the municipality.
He said he's not bitter about the land deal but he is bothered that the building sat empty for about 18 months.
"It's just another scar on Fort McMurray that I don't think it deserves."
Pederson wasn't against the idea of the arena, but thought the municipality had "excess and grandiose plans."
"Downtown Fort McMurray needed that little bit of a boost," said Pederson.
Since then, the land has been a parking lot.
Draw for downtown?
In 2018, council decided make downtown revitalization a priority, then in March of this year, council voted in favour of the Franklin and Main Park Project in an 8-3 vote. Mayor Don Scott and councillors Claris Voyageur and Keith McGrath were opposed.
Steven Niehaus, owner of Stacs Fine Food, said he is excited about the park, as it would be across the street from his restaurant.
"I know it might not be ideal for everybody, but the park is an exciting thing for us because it's going to give a chance for people to hopefully congregate downtown," said Niehaus.
In the winter, the park will have skating trails, he said. Workers during construction should also be good for business.
Jon Tupper, former president of the Chamber of Commerce, has been to half a dozen symposiums to talk about downtown revitalization. He said the municipality's strategy for downtown in recent years hasn't been successful.
"We razed more structures than we've brought up and that's kind of where we're at today," he said.
He said doing something with the space is better than doing nothing, but he doubts it will be an ongoing draw to bring people downtown in a municipality that already has many parks.
"Yes, a park is better than a parking lot, but I don't think it fills the gaps and the needs that the city created through their own overzealous expropriation," he said.
Pederson agrees with Tupper's assessment.
Downtown has been empty ever since expropriation, he said, and a park isn't likely to be the solution.
Frances Squire, 82, used to frequent one of the pubs that was torn down during the expropriation.
She said the municipality should be spending money on more important things, like flood mitigation.
"It's a waste of money," said Squire.