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Local construction companies are leading the rebuilding efforts in Fort McMurray

by Glenn Cook

Spring is a busy time for construction companies in Alberta. But in Fort McMurray, this year may be busier than usual.

“It feels like progress is being made, and you can see it happening with your own eyes.”
– Amanda Haitas,
economic development manager for Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

It has been about 10 months since wildfires ripped through the northern Alberta city, resulting in the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates the fires did $3.6 billion of damage. But the rebuilding effort is fully underway, even over the winter months, and it is expected to ramp up even more once the weather co-operates.

“It’s been pretty successful thus far, we’ve definitely issued more permits than we had imagined,” says Brad McMurdo, manager (acting) of community development planning with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB).

That activity has had an uplifting effect on residents, according to Amanda Haitas, economic development manager for RMWB. “It feels like progress is being made, and you can see it happening with your own eyes,” she says, noting that all the debris has been cleared away and some new homes have started being built. “You see workers out and trucks moving around. There’s activity happening all the time.”

And local construction companies have been getting in on the action, pouring foundations and doing as much work as they can over the winter months for people in their community while keeping money in the local economy.

“The guys that have been around for 10, 15, 30 years building houses … they know a lot of the people they’re building for. They’re neighbours and friends,” says Kim Jenkins, the rebuild subcommittee chair with the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee (WBRC), which was set up by the RMWB council to oversee policy and governance pertaining to Fort McMurray’s recovery. “It’s not your typical situation where you build a house and make some money; they want to build a good house for somebody, within their [budget]. These are neighbours, friends, your kid’s hockey coach. They want to do a good job for these people.”

Of course, with that much activity going on, it’s going to be a challenge to ensure all those work sites are following safety guidelines. Jenkins says that the WBRC has set up construction management teams in the four areas where the most destruction occurred. Trailers have been set up in those neighbourhoods where area co-ordinators will be stationed and will look after a team of safety and bylaw officers.

“The area co-ordinators are the key conduit to schools in the area, to people in the area, to builders in the area,” he says. “Their job is to be a problem-solver, a communicator, an educator. When you’re building in an area where people are living, there has to be a point person that everybody goes to if there’s an issue.”

Last summer, in the immediate aftermath of the fires, the Alberta government announced a number of measures to ensure homeowners weren’t taken advantage of by contractors as they rebuilt their homes. These include requiring builders to complete a builder declaration through the New Home Buyer Registry before being allowed to apply for permits, as well as allowing homeowners to access more information about builders through the New Home Buyers Protection Public Registry before hiring them. This information includes a builder’s residential construction history, corporate and financial history, and any outstanding fines or orders.

So far, McMurdo says it’s too early to tell whether or not those measures have been successful, but he understands the intent behind them. “They should, at the end of the day, provide homeowners with some comfort – that there was a vetting process and it was something that was being considered,” he says.

Meanwhile, as homes are being rebuilt, companies still need more hands to help build them. Haitas and her economic development team recently hosted a Home Show and Job Fair, where more than half of the exhibitors were not only looking to sell their services, but also to hire on workers. “That’s also promising, especially with the job slowdown [in the oil sands],” she says.

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