Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No better place to be than Fort McMurray

Opportunities abound in Alberta city

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If I were an ambitious young person looking to make my mark in life, I'd move to Fort McMurray, Alta. To really succeed in life takes a little talent, a lot of hard work and usually a smidgeon of luck. But your odds are much improved when you live and work in a place that's growing by leaps and bounds, and in Canada, you can't beat 'Fort Mac,' or 'Fort McMoney' as some people call it.

I've visited the area three times over the last decade, and the city's growth is spectacular. The most recent tour was this past week. Here are some statistics:

The average household income in Fort Mac is about $180,000. The average house price is almost $750,000. The majority of the population is under 40. The unemployment rate is about four per cent. The population in the region is 104,000, has doubled in the past decade and will grow by double-digits for years.

They work hard, make a lot of money and want to spend it. They are having trouble doing the latter. For starters, there's a lack of real estate in Fort McMurray. The city is addressing that. Once it does, though, there may be a shortage of entrepreneurs. Most people in Fort Mac work directly in the oil patch at one of the many big oilsands mines, or indirectly. As mentioned, they earn a nice living and enjoy amazing perks. That average house price may sound like a lot, and it is, but keep in mind the average household earns almost $200,000 a year. Plus many employers offer incentives to keep employees.

One company gives its workers a $50,000 interest-free loan to buy a home, which is forgiven after five years, provided they stay. Property taxes are reasonable because the oilsands companies pay so much of the cost of the city through their taxes, and of course, it being Alberta income taxes are low. Plus, there's no sales tax.

That means lots of disposable income looking for a home. What do these people want? Services, from health care to financial advice to pampering. So if you're a doctor or dentist or veterinarian, you could quickly build up a nice practice up there.

If you're an aspiring financial planner or stock broker, you couldn't find a better place to start building your book of business. Young people with lots of money need good advice.

Want to cut your teeth in real estate? It's cutthroat up there, but if you make it, you'll learn a lot and make a lot, too. Want a career in hotel management? Business is brisk and the hotels (more than a third of which are owned by Winnipeg's own Temple REIT) are always looking for good people.

How about starting a hair salon with an eye to building a chain? Or starting a retail store or restaurant? The nice thing about doing it in a place like Fort McMoney is there's a wide margin of safety for mistakes. With all of that demand and wealth, you can afford to make more mistakes as you learn than you can in a more mature setting.

And of course, if you just want to earn a nice living in the trades, maybe driving a 400-tonne truck or operating a massive shovel, you can make a six-figure salary with overtime. Plus, you could earn a degree in, say, engineering. The oil companies employ thousands of them and many will help pay for your education.

This is not to say Fort Mac doesn't have challenges. Finding a place to live is not easy, for instance. It's far from everything. The winters are long and dark.

But the city is spending a lot of money making the place livable. There's a plan to build an arena to attract a WHL hockey team. The new sports complex would make most cities envious. The airport is being expanded and you can count on more flights. It's not hard to go south in the winter to escape the cold.

Over the next couple of decades, tens of billions of dollars will pour into Fort McMurray as the economy expands. If you're ambitious and looking for a rewarding career adventure, you could do worse than start your career there. Find a need and fill it is the entrepreneur's credo. It's a good place to do it.

Fabrice Taylor is an award-winning financial journalist and analyst and author of the President's Club Investment Letter. Email him at:

fabrice.taylor@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 B10

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