The Growing Celebrity City: Big-time celebrities and superstars light up Fort McMurray's long summer nights

By Monica Leslie - Thursday, December 1 2011

There’s something happening in Wood Buffalo. Once described as an isolated northern municipality that encompasses Canada’s oil sands, the Municipality is seeing a shift in perception. The shift has come from within, spurred on by the needs of the people who live here, who want more than a busy life of work.

Anywhere you go, culture and recreation are being delivered as an escape from the long hours of work that normally define life in Fort McMurray. With the emergence of high-quality concert venues, community events and recreation facilities, as well as dedicated event planners, Wood Buffalo is bringing in the top entertainment acts that you expect to find in any metropolitan city. This development has served to show that Wood Buffalo is not merely a place to make money, but also an excellent place to call home and to enjoy all that it has to offer.

And it offers a lot more than you’d think.

If you are a Canadian and you watch HGTV, you know the ‘do it right’ man.

Mike Holmes, the keynote speaker at the September Western Cities Conference, ‘The Amazing Pace: Building an Organization, Building a Community!’, elaborated on what it means to ‘do it right’ when it comes to a high-growth powerhouse like the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which hosted the conference.

With unmatched passion, Holmes outlined how we all need to start being green and shared a personal anecdote about Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In conversation with the Prime Minister, Holmes said: “Steve, we’re all thinking green, we’re all talking green, but who’s going to do it?” Not that many Canadians call the Prime Minister ‘Steve,’ but Holmes is quite down to earth and he apparently expects others – no matter what their office – to be there as well.

Holmes said he was pleasantly surprised at the thriving community of Fort McMurray.

Citing the explosive growth, the natural beauty and the welcoming attitude of residents, he said he was going to tell everyone about ‘the real Fort McMurray.’

And it’s definitely growing: Just ask Tim Reid, Chief Operating Officer of MacDonald Island. Since joining the MacDonald Island team in 2009, Reid has watched an unfinished recreation centre grow into a hugely popular cultural and entertainment facility, and he has watched the community embrace and grow with it.

“We were a big community that didn’t have a big facility for people to congregate and now we do,” explains Reid. “We deserve it. We’re the third largest community in Alberta and there’s no reason that we can’t have first-class entertainment here.”

The importance of having the infrastructure to host world-class concerts such as July’s KISS concert as well as successful sport events such as the outdoor Northern Classic is huge. MacDonald Island, along with all the other cultural and recreational facilities in Fort McMurray, has exposed the community to a vibrant, dynamic lifestyle that was not prevalent before.

This feeling is shared by Andrew Boutilier, Executive Director of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, who says, “There’s certainly an appetite and a desire to be able to do bigger-magnitude sporting events.”

The first outdoor Junior Hockey Northern Classic was a perfect example of the community coming together to celebrate the tradition of Canada’s national sport. It was especially meaningful to Wood Buffalo for the number of positive news stories it created; inviting larger events has allowed the region to create a more welcoming image.

“It allows people in Canada to view us in a different limelight,” says Boutilier of the national attention earned by hosting last year’s Northern Classic and the Red & White Game in August. “We direct attention away from the oil sands. We’re breathing clean air and we’re living here in the community raising our families and we’re raising them in the sport that we all grew up loving, and that’s hockey.”

Many of these events depend on passionate event planners and volunteers to make them successful. “It’s important to provide cultural outlets – celebrations for people to reflect on their community spirit,” says Misty Oakes, Event Associate at Events Wood Buffalo. “The big spirit is definitely here and it’s alive.” Hosting large events not only portrays Wood Buffalo in a more positive light across Canada, but it also has a profound effect on the quality of life for the people living here. Cultural and entertainment events bring people together from all communities within the region, and it shows that one doesn’t have to leave Fort McMurray in order to have fun with friends and family.

With the much-anticipated Western Canada Summer Games headed our way in 2015, among countless other concerts, festivals and events to keep us entertained, the infrastructure to host these events can only continue to grow. “We’re becoming a more active and a more energetic community each and every day,” says Boutilier. “As the population grows, obviously you have to look at bigger and better facilities.”

Jennifer Lamontagne, Lead Events Coordinator for Events Wood Buffalo, is confident in Wood Buffalo’s entertainment and leisure prospects. “I think every time we prove to everybody what we can do, that we have the spirit, that we have the infrastructure, we have the volunteers, we have everything that needs to come together in a package to create these events and to deliver them,” she says, “it allows us more opportunity to go after the bidding process for future events. Who knows what will come next?”

Wood Buffalo has gone from a large town without significant cultural and recreational space to a community that takes pride in showing off what it has to offer.

With the support of the community and local organizations, the future for world-class events and star-studded celebrities in Wood Buffalo looks bright.

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