It’s eerily quiet.
I imagine this is how it might have felt during the initial hours post-evacuation in May, with the majority of the people gone but a few stragglers remaining. In fact, it is so very quiet it is disquieting, and a vague thought pops into my head wondering if they have evacuated again and forgotten to let everyone know.
Except there has been no evacuation, and the disturbing quiet is for other reasons. It is a Tuesday evening, it is 7:30pm and I am in the local shopping mall – and I am one of a handful of shoppers there, so few they can be counted on my fingers and the number of store employees far outstripping the number of those spending money in the stores.
And for the first time in my sixteen years of residency in this community, I find myself feeling anxious about the future.
Even before the fire in May we were facing economic challenges in this community related to the price of oil, our primary industry and source of revenue. We were just beginning to really come to terms with that when the flames swept through, dealing yet another blow to a community already under strain. We returned to rebuild and recover, and while we have been focused on our recovery from the fire the worries of the economy have not disappeared, but perhaps faded into the background a bit. But I think it is time we recognize that we are facing some difficult times.
Our economy will see a little bump upwards during the rebuilding, of course. This construction boom, likely the largest in our history, will bring in some revenue for our local businesses, and we must squeeze every cent out of that economic boon that we can (a reason I am so grateful for the recent decision from the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee to reject the concept of a work camp for those coming to build, ensuring they use local hotels instead). We must do everything we can to keep as much of the revenue generated through this rebuild in our community, as we simply do not know what our economic future holds in this region.
As I walked around the mall this week, I thought a great deal about the economic sustainability and viability of these businesses, and all the others in our region. I believe we have some hard decisions ahead, and we will need to recognize that perhaps having a shopping mall open late every weeknight is something we currently cannot maintain if we wish to see these retailers survive. It also means we must not only shop local, but begin to think local in every single decision we make.
Whether we are acting as consumers, voters or residents we must consider the local implications of every decision as relates to our economy. It is so easy – and so very tempting – to buy online or down south to save a few dollars, and it is something of which I too am guilty; but if I want my fellow community members to continue to be able to operate their businesses and to be employed, I must carefully consider the impact of my decision to do so. Every candidate in the upcoming municipal election must have a robust platform when it comes to economic development and support for the local economy, as to suggest this is not of critical importance is to misunderstand the very nature of the challenges facing our region right now.
Recovery from the wildfire is just one of the challenges we face, and perhaps the most immediate; sustaining our local economy is much more long-term and perhaps much more intricate in many ways, but it begins with one simple step: think local.
This might mean that in the short term we see some dip in services as businesses need to close in order to keep their expenses low during quiet times and focus on those times when they can generate good revenue; and it may mean we need to reconsider some of our spending habits and our expectations. And it may well mean we see some businesses falter and even fail, which will make it even more critical to support those that remain.
At the end of the day, I am an eternal optimist when it comes to Fort McMurray and our community; I truly believe in our future and I believe in our strength and resiliency, which has been tested more than one could ever imagine in 2016. But I also believe the future is not something that just happens; we build the future with every step and decision we make today. And the decisions we make in regard to our economy – as consumers, as voters and as residents – are critical. For me, the light bulb went on when I stood on a shopping mall concourse and realized I was the only person standing there, a sense of disquiet rising within me as I recognized that this was deeply worrisome and that the missing noise and bustle was a sign of trouble.
Don’t just shop local; think local. My future – and yours – depends on it now more than ever before.