Smith shines
South Slave community big hit in Edmonton

Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

NNSL (Dec 07/98) - "We're at the end of the road," says Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce president Sean Mageean.

When it comes to driving to southern Alberta, Fort Smith residents have to first drive 269 kilometres north and west to Hay River, then head south.

Many in Fort Smith would like to see direct road access to Fort Vermilion, Alta. Remnants of an old road link between Peace Point and Fort Vermilion remain.

Fort Smith Mayor Peter Martselos said if the area could get such a road, it would not only open up easier access to Alberta but also "complete a tourism loop" for the Fort Smith area. From Fort Vermilion, it's a short drive to High Level, Alta.

But connecting Fort Smith with Fort Vermilion means development across Wood Buffalo National Park.

Mayor Martselos and Mageean were among a strong Fort Smith contingent at the Meet the North Build a Vision conference in Edmonton last week.`

In fact, after Yellowknife with 155 delegates, Fort Smith had the second largest presence at the conference. Some 22 Fort Smith residents were registered delegates, according to numbers from conference organizers.

The group, which occupied an impressive three booths -- compared to Yellowknife which had three groups, the city, the chamber, and the Northern Frontier Regional Visitors Centre in one booth -- showed the Fort Smith area's arts and crafts, as well as outdoor tourism opportunities.

"Many people are asking about tourism. There's a lot of interest in Wood Buffalo National Park. It's a big draw," Fort Smith councillor Mike Couvrette said. Wood Buffalo is designated a United Nations World Heritage Site.

"We're here (in Edmonton) to promote Fort Smith as a place to visit, live and do business," Mageean said. Taiga Tours Co., Circumpolar Promotions Inc. Northwestern Air Lease and Designer's Den were among other Fort Smith businesses at the event.

Mageean estimates visitor numbers to Fort Smith at about 2,500 a year. Ten years ago, the community welcomed about twice that, he said. The community's population has also declined 12 per cent. According to the last two censuses, 1996 population was 2,570, down from 2,914 five years earlier.

The Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce has 45 members but Mageean estimates the community also has about 300 home-based businesses.

Meet the North offered a big opportunity to get back a few tourists and raise the community's profile.

Many visitors to the Fort Smith area are from Alberta, Mageean said.

"We were first to register (for the conference) and we got a prime location."

The group chartered a Northwestern Air Lease plane. The carrier was among businesses occupying a Fort Smith booth at the event.

Northwestern Air Lease co-owner Brian Harrold said the show offered a chance to continue the company's lobbying with the Edmonton Regional Airports Authority.

The carrier is among a lobby group wanting access to the Edmonton city centre airport.

Currently, city centre only allows nine-seater aircraft. Harrold would like to see that increased to 19 so the company's Jetstream 31 can fly in.

"If we can get a scheduled flight, we can drive prices down for everybody else," he said.

Doug Francoeur with Edmonton Airports said the topic is being looked at, but more access to city centre might decrease traffic at Edmonton International Airport.