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Transition created new dynamic for Penticton city council in 2013

Penticton Mayor Garry Litke said 2013 was a year of transition with a new council and mayor being elected. - Western News file photo
Penticton Mayor Garry Litke said 2013 was a year of transition with a new council and mayor being elected.
— image credit: Western News file photo

Many of the things Mayor Garry Litke is looking forward to in 2014 build on groundwork laid in 2013 and earlier.

One of the biggest is the ongoing revitalization of  downtown Penticton. After years of consultation and study, the first phase of work will begin on portions of Martin Street and Westminster Avenue this year, and detailed planning will be done for the 100 to 700 blocks of Main Street.

Litke said the planners have done a phenomenal job putting the plan together through public process and engagement, but are now facing the final task of getting a stamp of approval from stakeholders.

“They are going to need to be able to convince the business owners in the downtown that this is a good idea,” said Litke. “The reason we have so many downtown improvement plans sitting on the shelf gathering dust is we have never had the capability to communicate the benefits of downtown redevelopment with the business owners. That is why it has always failed in the past.”

Litke hopes the business owners who have a vested interest in the redevelopment of the downtown will understand and be patient; he admits there will be a difficult period of construction and some costs on their part, but adds this redevelopment will set the tone for downtown for decades to come.

“On the flip side, if we don’t, we are going to get left way behind. If we don’t do it now, we are going to lose our competitive advantage,” said Litke, explaining that Penticton could fall far behind other cities in attracting tourists and providing amenities for people visiting for conventions, concerts and other attractions.

One major amenity for 2014 is being developed by a community group, though with seed money from the city. The Penmar Theatre, closed when Landmark opened their new theatre complex, will reopen this year as a performing arts centre. That, said Litke, has been a dream since 2008, but the concept of building a new $30-million theatre downtown has never managed to get off the ground.

“In the absence of any solid business plan coming up for that project, another group of independent citizens have formed a non-profit society … and have just a killer business plan,” said Litke.

Litke added that given the thoroughness of the business plan  to redevelop the Penmar, he will be surprised if it fails.

“It is judicious, it is strategic and it is fiscally prudent,” he said. “It doesn’t throw $30 million on a project then hope we can run it. It is starting small in a fiscally responsible way. They are so ambitious to be open by April.”

Challenge Penticton, according to Litke, was both one of the greatest accomplishments of 2013 and something to look forward to in 2014. The city took a big risk when it chose to end a 30-year relationship with Ironman Canada, but it has paid off, he said.

“Getting that first race run was a huge achievement. We are now on the ground floor of an exciting development that will take probably three to five years to actually mature that it will be able to run on its own. In the meantime it requires a lot of city assistance,” he said. “That would be a major achievement of this past year, making that transition, a very difficult transition from a major corporate entity to a small family-run operation.”

A solid number of housing starts in 2013 is a good sign for 2014 and necessary to stabilize the city’s finances, in Litke’s view.

“That’s also what we need to address the structural deficit in our budget. We don’t have any expenses left to cut,” said Litke. “The only solution to our structural deficit is to create more revenue and that means more homes, more taxpayers, more people paying into city coffers.

“More homes, more residential development and more jobs.”

But some of the biggest changes that will affect how the city is run in 2014 are the result of changes at council itself throughout 2014. Former mayor Dan Ashton’s move to provincial politics resulted in Litke resigning his council seat to run for mayor, and a byelection for a new councillor.

“There were a lot of transitions going through the by election and having in effect a rotating mayor for a period of six months,” said Litke. “That created significant difficulty for the operations of the city during that period. That was an unusual and difficult time for the city.”

While there is only one new face on council, Katie Robinson, Litke said the group dynamics have shifted, in effect creating a new council.

“This new team that we have is incredibly strong. It’s easily as strong as any council that I have ever had the privilege of serving on. Their strength comes from their disparity; they are all so different,” he said. “That presents a challenge for me as mayor, to try to arrive at consensus in a group that has such strongly held beliefs and values. I admire all of them for their core values; they are all people of significant integrity.”

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