Fort Nelson is already lacking medical personnel, so the idea of doubling or tripling the population concerns local leaders. The town is staring down the barrel of an LNG boom, and all of the labor force that comes with it.
“That’s going to be a really big problem here, because when they start LNG, it’s going to come quick to the communities, and it’s a matter of us trying to get these resources to come in at the same time, and doctors of course are going to be a very big one,” said Northern Rockies Mayor Bill Streeper.
He pointed to Fort St. John as an example of how dire it could get, with a population that far exceeds the medical professionals in the area.
“It’s been hard to get doctors up here for a long time,” said Randy McLean, the municipality’s chief administrative officer.
He said the long-term plan that the NRRM identified was to get a community health care unit set up for primary care, but the electorate turned the project down.
“We’re regrouping right now, and we intend to go back to the public, reestablish household, tabletop-type exercises to go back to square one and revisit that to see if we made a mistake somewhere along the road, or if we just didn’t communicate it right,” he said.
How to care for these people medically is one concern. Another is transporting them to and from the region, and to do that the town is looking to another piece of the puzzle: the airport.
“It’s an economic driver of a community,” said Eric Desmoyers, the Northern Rockies Regional Airport’s business manager. “Especially with the fly-in, fly-out model we’re currently seeing in other resource-based communities such as Terrace and Fort McMurray.”
According to the development plan, passenger forecasts to 2028 put the number of passengers between 230,000 and 300,000. That’s approximately the number of passengers the North Peace Regional Airport expects to see this year.
Another reason is safety. Since the community is so remote, medevacs fly into that airport to get patients to an outside care facility.
“Because we’re so far away from any other communities, this is lifeblood not only for industry, but for the community itself,” said Desmoyers.
“Regardless of if the LNG comes or not, it’s still an economic driver for the community, and it still is a safety factor, but you’re going to see if the LNG does happen – which we’re anticipating that it does –it’s going to go three times the importance of that.
“In 2012, the airport did $200 million in economic stimulus for the community ... direct and indirect. We play a really big factor for the community and for the industry out here.”
The airport is working to modernize in anticipation of double or even triple the current passenger numbers. Officials have introduced pay parking, in response to workers leaving their vehicles there while they work in the camps for long periods of time, said Streeper. The next step is getting security screening up to Federal government standards.
As it stands currently, flights leaving the area have to make a stop and go through security at Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, or Prince George before traveling to a major hub. That extra cost is passed down to the consumer, and makes the airport unattractive to bigger airlines such as Air Canada or Westjet.
The plan is to get that security designation from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) in place before LNG comes in.
“That’s our next push that we’re working on is developing a report to give to the Federal government on support to get security,” said Desmoyers.
“There are lots of smaller airports out there that have security that don’t have the growth that we’re anticipating, or the current passenger load that we see.”