As Fort Nelson both embraces and braces for an LNG-fueled economic boom that could begin as early as this year, it’s trying its best to prepare for an influx of residents who will suddenly require more housing, medical care and transportation than the relatively small town can support today.
“When we do our projections and our base case studies and all this, it talks about the population going from 5,000 to 10,000 and possibly 15,000 in a short period of time,” said Randy McLean, the Northern Rockies chief administrative officer.
“It’s hard to imagine that.”
But even with a confident prediction, they can’t rush head-first into a construction blitz.
“You can’t run ahead and build everything on speculation that something may or may not come to pass – yet at the same time, if they do announce something, it’s going to come with tremendous speed,” said McLean.
To mitigate that, the city has started acquiring land for future subdivisions. Much of the land that surrounds the town is Crown land, or in the Agricultural Land Reserve, and requires a lengthy process to free it up for residential use.
“We’re trying to do all those kind of steps right now, so that when something does happen, we’re able to move much more quickly,” said McLean.
As of right now, Fort Nelson has one development that’s been started – new commercial and industrial properties have been created on the south side of the town.
“We are just about 50 per cent done, and we’re going to wait until that is sold until we finish the project off,” said Northern Rockies Mayor Bill Streeper. “As it stands right now, we have an adequate supply of new commercial and industrial property available.”
And in terms of housing, there are two residential development projects that are on the drawing board.
“Both these projects are pretty much what you’d call ‘shovel-ready,’” said Streeper. “But we haven’t started any of it yet, because we don’t want to tie up the investment money and then have them sit for five or six years.”
Along with those new properties, the municipality has to look towards expanding its sewage and transportation network to accommodate the new residents.
“When we get into these subdivisions, we have water that needs to be expanded, sewer that needs to be expanded – and a lot of this we have the groundwork done on it already,” said Streeper.
“Our sewer outfall, we’ve been advised by B.C. [Ministry of] Environment that it needs to be replaced,” said McLean. That’s a fundamental project that will cost between $10 and $13 million.
Streeper said they already know where the subdivisions are going in and have even secured the land – they just have the plan “on the shelf” until a time has been finalized by industry.
They’re also working on a transportation plan, doing a review of traffic lights and reworking the Alaska Highway corridor through the town.
Currently, there’s a single lane that blocks traffic behind anyone turning left. They’ve worked out a plan to split the cost of adding a middle turning lane with the Ministry of Transportation, 50-50. The first section should be completed next year.
With the new labour force that the boom will bring, the number of doctors in the region will need to increase as well, a problem that the municipality admits is not as easy to fix.
Not only do they have a medical staffing shortage right now, it’ll only get worse with a higher population.