Kelvin Thomas loves his lifestyle – living in the Okanagan and working in northern Alberta’s oil sands. “It’s the best of both worlds,” he said. “Living in Kelowna is great for the family, has a better climate and gives us way more opportunities to enjoy life. But, it’s true, you can make wheelbarrows full of money working in Fort Mac (Fort McMurray, the capital of oil-rich northern Alberta).”
Before moving to Kelowna’s Wilden neighbourhood in July, Thomas, his wife Rhonda and their four children, aged eight to 22, lived in Fort McMurray for six years.
“Fort Mac is a working town. You live there to work,”
“June, July and August belong to the bugs up there and then the rest of the time it’s winter. We’d holiday in Hawaii and Florida and come to the Okanagan to ski in the winter and get out on the lake in the summer.”
So last year, when Thomas discovered that his employer, Meg Energy, was running direct flights from its airstrip in Conklin, Alta. (one hour south of Fort McMurray), to Kelowna, he switched jobs and lifestyles.
He now works an 84-hour week as an oil sands extraction operator with Meg and then flies non-stop to Kelowna in
an hour and 45 minutes on a 19-seat Beechcraft plane to spend a week with his family.
“One week in, one week out is the preferred schedule,”
“Actually I work less now than I did when I lived in Fort Mac, because when I lived in Fort Mac, I’d be around to work overtime. Now I stick to the one week on, one week off schedule and I spend more time with my family.”
The kids were hesitant to leave Fort McMurray because they all had great school and social lives there.
“But after a little period of adjustment, they decided they like Kelowna better,” said Thomas.
“After all, they’re skiing Big White all winter. We get out on the boat so much in the summer. And for the younger ones, we live on a street with lots of other kids.”
Rhonda, a stay-at-home mom who’s expecting the family’s fifth child, loves the new home at Wilden and both her and Thomas wonder why they didn’t make the move sooner.
That’s largely because there’s big money to be made in northern Alberta’s oil sands. But along with the jobs come
inflated real estate prices in the oil sands.
“We sold our house in Fort Mac for $900,000 and bought a nicer place at Wilden with a pool on Hidden Lake for $750,000,” said Thomas.
Wilden, a master-planned community that will eventually have 2,800 homes, has taken notice.
“It’s a target market we want to tap into more,” said Wilden sales and marketing manager Brent Couves.
“The Central Okanagan Canadian Home Builders’ Association is looking at going up to Fort McMurray to
recruit families living up there to move to Kelowna.
We’ll definitely be involved with that initiative.”
Sherri Paiement, the executive director of the local home builders’ branch, said the trip to Fort McMurray hasn’t been set yet, but is in the works.
“This could really drive the Kelowna housing market,”
“If your company will fly you in and out of Kelowna, why not live here. Your family will enjoy a better quality of life and it will be good for the local economy because people will buy homes, have their kids go to school here and spend money here.”
The City of Kelowna and the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission is also on board.
“For the first time, in 2013 we’ve put recruiting families from northern Alberta in our strategic plan,” said economic development commission manager Robert Fine.
“There’s already lots of families who live here and the breadwinner commutes to their job, but our new plan recognizes that and wants to see more of it.”
Kelowna is a popular destination because of its nice weather, city amenities and recreational lifestyle.
But it couldn’t position itself as an option without exceptional air service at Kelowna Airport.
Four dedicated flights a week bring in and take out workers – the aforementioned Coastal Mountain Air for Meg Energy, a 136-seat Canadian North Airlines 737 jet for the Kearl oil field and two 158-seat Flair Air jets to Fort McMurray.
“Besides the charter flights, there’s also a lot of workers that connect through Calgary and Edmonton to get from Kelowna to the oil sands,” said Kelowna Airport media
relations representative Jenelle Hynes.
“We know we have 11,163 passengers (annually) travelling between (Kelowna Airport) and Fort McMurray (the same worker would be counted numerous times on their weekly trips throughout the year).
“However, that number is understated because many of the oil companies tell their employees to fly to Calgary on
a commercial flight (WestJet or Air Canada) and then their employees go as one group of a chartered aircraft (from Calgary).”