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The new pedestrian and bicycle path along Gellatly Bay has a lot of infrastructure to complete.  (Photo:  Devon Brooks)
The new pedestrian and bicycle path along Gellatly Bay has a lot of infrastructure to complete. (Photo: Devon Brooks)

The reinvention

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There is a party game where you ask people who know you to define your character in one word. While fraught with possible misinterpretation or even insult, it is interesting because, whether you agree with the descriptions, it is probably a true reflection of what they see in you. If we were to apply that party trick to the District of West Kelowna the word that probably best applies is transition.

It’s much more than just the new municipal government although it’s true there as well. Mayor Doug Findlater says most people think the government transition is history since it was incorporated on December 6, 2007, but it’s simply not true. He points out, “We’re still in transition.”

Some items normally controlled by a municipal government are here, some are just arrived (like transit and GIS or computerized mapping), and some, like road maintenance, won’t be here for another year or two.

Road maintenance is still under the control of the province. While this is frustrating for some people who may want changes right now, Findlater points out that it saves money in the short term and it means there is one less thing he and the new administrative crew have to deal with this second.
This is providing West Kelowna time to put some studies in place and make some decisions. If you ask studies on what, the answer is pretty much everything. Jokes Findlater, “We have so many plans that we need a plan of plans.”

Council is right now looking at a draft economic development plan, transportation, development and zoning, plus GIS and tourism. It may sound like typical government double-talk for studying things to death, but Findlater says it is about getting things right the first time to save money and time later. “We want to plan it first rather than respond to this thing and that thing. Look, the Old Okanagan Highway was dug up four times in two years. I want to avoid that.”

It makes for a bewildering number of decisions that must be made, but many are interconnected and putting a priority on one thing, often means something else is put on the back burner. That’s not even considering whether or not West Kelowna has the money to do it.

So a good kilometer of the Gellatly Bay Road, to the immediate north of the Cove Resort has a new, wide pedestrian and bicycle path alongside of it. This is good for residents, good for giving Cove visitors and residents a safe place to walk, helps to build tourism, but Findlater says it is only the first stage. Eventually he says council hopes to extend that walkway for another couple of kilometers making the beach accessible and much more friendly to non-vehicle traffic, but money going there can’t be going elsewhere.

Less exciting things like sewers and sidewalks have been long neglected. Admits Findlater, “We have a ton of catch up to do.”

Phillippe Daigle is the president of the Westbank Chamber of Commerce. He says is impressed with how council has handled the many headed hydra of getting the new municipal structure built and functioning.

The Chamber of Commerce is going through as much of a rebirth as the town is. Consider that for years, while decisions were made in Victoria or at the RDCO, the Chamber was the only body that represented purely local interests and provided a public voice to businesses and, often enough, residents alike.
The Chamber was as close to a town council as existed, but that made for a strangely two-headed beast. While it was still dedicated to representing its 496 strong business membership, it took on more than a few community issues. It relentlessly plugged and supported, for example, Westside Daze, the community’s biggest annual party.

Now, says Daigle, the Chamber has to rethink itself and focus on becoming a “regular” chamber, whose main job is advocacy for local businesses. It is no coincidence that it retained the name of Westbank Chamber, rather than becoming the West Kelowna Chamber. Daigle says, “People think we are a West Kelowna beast, but we’re not.”

The Chamber represents businesses from West Kelowna, WFN lands and more than a few Peachland and Kelowna businesses are also members. The new pedestrian and bicycle path along Gellatly Bay - West Kelowna has a lot of infrastructure to complete, says Mayor Findlater.

Hence the Chamber’s push to emphasize its business advocacy role, stepping back a little from the Westside general promoter image.

Many activities or policies that aid business also help the community the coin is the costs or losses that governments can impose on businesses, sometimes indirectly, without intending to.

The provincial Ministry of Transportation is a good example. Daigle says automobile traffic is the sole focus of the Ministry when it considers the Okanagan and, in West Kelowna, that means fast and easy traffic flow. The couplet in the Westbank downtown area may move traffic along, but many people including Daigle don’t believe it is beneficial to local business. Mayor Findlater agrees, saying, “I think our community has a consensus that the couplet has hurt our community.”

Despite the beauty of its beaches, West Kelowna lacks a central focus that can entice visitors to stay or where residents can gather. The recent spate of closures of businesses in the downtown is a reminder that it is struggling.

Daigle prefers to emphasize the half full cup, saying, “I’d like to look on the downtown as a great opportunity. Do we try to do the same or something unique or different?”

His idea is a village square, like the ones that are omnipresent in every European city and village, would be a great way to repopulate business vitality and attract people. Findlater, in a separate conversation, paints a similar vision about creating a town square, but Daigle notes, “Vision is hard to sell.”

If it can be made to happen it will take time, he adds. “It’s a slow process. I’m a firm believer that we need engagement and a chance to discuss what can be done.”

In the meantime Findlater hopes to convince the Ministry of Transportation to abandon the couplet, and create a wider two-way street.
The Mayor also says that while the District may be a new thing, he is happy about the sound base of businesses like Gorman Brothers, Alpine Helicopters and other industry that provides jobs and a tax base for the town. Business, he says, that his council hopes to encourage and grow as the planning comes together.

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