Canada's oil boomtown painfully adjusts to life after bust

Mon Jan 25, 2016 5:43am EST
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By Nia Williams

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada's northern oil hub Fort McMurray is learning the hard way that there is no such thing as simply going back to normal after a long boom that got cut short by the collapse in crude prices.

With prices down 70 percent over 18 months, producers have deferred costly new oil sands projects and laid off tens of thousands of mainly fly-in fly-out workers, who overwhelmed the city during the 15-year oil boom, but also bankrolled much of its prosperity.

That huge shadow population, which by some estimates peaked at around 70,000 nearly matching the city's permanent population of around 80,000, stretched its public services, inflated rents and property prices.

The stress was so great that city officials welcomed the onset of the market downturn with a sense of relief - an opportunity to return to a more balanced development.

Now, downtown parking and spots at popular restaurants and cafes are easy to find and traffic flows smoothly. But local businesses estimate that half of the transient workers have left, heading home to other parts of Alberta and other provinces, and say the exodus has hit them hard.

"Anybody who tells you it's not tough, they are lying," said Jeff Peddle, a restaurant owner and property manager. He said he and his wife work 15-hour days, seven days a week, to keep their businesses going after cutting staff.

Several new restaurants opened in the city in 2015 in an unlucky twist of timing, including Peddle's Jamaican restaurant, and Cosa Nostra, an upscale Italian with a dress code and live piano music.

"I started this project two years ago when this town was booming and everything was rock and roll," said Cosa Nostra owner and chef Mark Hobson. "Now everybody is crossing their fingers. We are struggling with the fact there are not a lot of people in town."   Continued...

The Suncor tar sands processing plant near the Athabasca River at their mining operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta, in this file photo taken September 17, 2014. REUTERS/Todd Korol/Files