The long-awaited Willow Square Continuing Care Centre in Fort McMurray has finally been built and residents should be able to move in within months.
The Department of Infrastructure announced Monday that construction on the facility has finished and the building has been handed over to Alberta Health Services to finish outfitting the building with medical equipment, supplies and furniture.
The $102-million building was completed under budget, said Minister of Infrastructure Prasad Panda. The project faced many delays, including the 2016 Horse River wildfire, 2020 April flood, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"I was quite pleased and relieved when we were able to finish the work," said Prasad in a Tuesday interview.
The building will have 108 beds, with space for 36 more if required.
"McMurray is also experiencing a growing and aging population, so this is the time they needed this type of facility. And they got one, although it's slightly delayed."
Prasad said Willow Square is the most modern facility in Alberta.
"They got the best."
Joan Furber, president of the Golden Years Society, has been advocating for the facility for years.
She got involved when the province was planning on building the facility in Parsons, a neighbourhood on the northernmost edge of Fort McMurray.
She said that plan was concerning, because seniors wanted to be located downtown, with better access to the hospital, shopping and churches.
"We didn't want them to give us something we didn't want."
The Willow Square facility is located just steps away from the local hospital.
"The seniors are going to love it. It's a beautiful facility," said Furber. "We have so many long-time citizens of Fort McMurray, they don't want to go somewhere else."
She said the community keeps losing seniors, because they move away to Edmonton to access long-term care facilities, but now, with Willow Square, "they'll have a home," said Furber. "This is just a great thing. Way too late for our community, should've been here 20 years ago."
Former MLA and MP Brian Jean was a strong advocate for the centre and started working on the project in 2005. He says the facility has been needed in the community for years.
"It's filling a huge gap for seniors that have been staying in our hospital or going outside of town," said Jean.
Jean worked with Rachel Notley to move the location of Willow Square back to downtown, which was important for the quality of life the facility would provide.
Jean said this is also important for the Indigenous communities in Wood Buffalo, because some seniors have had to leave their hometowns and move to Edmonton.
"Who would possibly do that to a senior? Well they've been doing it for years," said Jean.
He said it seems wrong that seniors have to move 500 kilometres away from home to get proper care.
Jean's mother was looking to spend her last days at Willow Square, he said, but she died in 2018. He said his mother was a strong advocate for the centre, and would call him every day to talk about it.
"It's a game-changer," he said. "I just wish my mom would've seen it."
The facility is expected to open in late Spring.