It was standing room only as multiple generations congregated at Opus Cafe Wednesday night to hear from candidates for Penticton city council in advance of the coming election.
Hosted by GenNext Penticton, a group that promotes leadership among 18- to 35-year-olds, the event was designed to give younger generations access to would-be politicians and focus the discussion on their topics of choice.
Questions surrounded a variety of topics ranging from protecting environmentally sensitive areas from development, library services, arts in a community, city accessibility all the way to smart meters.
But the dominant question overshadowing the room was the economy, and what Penticton’s elected officials can do to keep young families in Penticton.
Jeannie Cavallo, a realtor, said she decided to run because she saw how much her younger clients were struggling to make ends meet.
“I’m really getting sick of listing their houses so they can go work in Alberta,” Cavallo said, adding her No. 1 priority is “keeping our citizens here.
“We need to attract clean industry to our area. We need our residents to get back to work, and we need better wages.”
Incumbent Judy Sentes said she was happy with the event, given the community is too often labelled as mostly seniors. She said there were “things to be completed, and I would like to be part of that decision-making process.”
John Vassilaki is seeking his fourth term on council, and explained to the crowd he began his career in business as a 19-year-old who no one would initially lend to. “It was very difficult. I started out with practically nothing,” he said, encouraging youth in attendance to stick with the community. “You all have some opportunity to be successful in Penticton. My wife and I, we had opportunities to move, but we had a lot of faith in our community.”
Frank Conci, who owns a business in the industrial area, said he has lived in Penticton for 56 years, and remembers his “formative” years growing up in the town. “I’ve seen Penticton when things have been good,” he said.
He recounted the troubles of one young employee who struggled to find affordable housing. “It’s hard for them to get started,” he said, suggesting home equity is a key step in financial security and that the city should explore “things we can do so that first house is affordable.”
David Korinetz, an author and book distributor, said the city needs to focus on drawing high-tech industry to the area, rather than focusing all attentions on tourism.
“We have too many of these low-paying jobs,” he said.
Wes Hopkin, 22, said he was running because he was “disappointed” that youth were not represented on council at a critical time.
“We’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re not balancing the budget on the backs of youth and young families.”
Burga Black, 86, said she wanted to make sure things got back to basics.
“I’m concerned about jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said. “A pie can only be sliced in so many pieces. Why do things cost so much in Penticton? I don’t know all the answers, but I want to look at it.”
Incumbent Andrew Jakubeit said that the Centre of Excellence based out of Okanagan College will play a big role in economic development in years to come.
“If we could be leaders in green business or environmental business practices, that would create not only clean jobs, but has tremendous growth potential,” he said, adding later that he was in favour of educating residents on xeriscaping practices to reduce water consumption.
Incumbent Garry Litke is seeking his third term, and the retired English teacher said he went into city politics to address concerns about sustainability. He said the most viable option for job creation is high tech and those with professional backgrounds.
“The key is attracting businesses with young professionals,” he said. “We need jobs that are based in the knowledge economy.”
Jason Cox said that making the city a viable place for young families comes down to a thriving industrial sector.
“The buzz word of this election is jobs,” he said. “They’re bringing people in to move here, bring their families, put their children in our schools.
“We also need the arts and culture, because it contributes to creating a vibrant community. Council needs to focus on having that balance.”
A 23-year veteran of civic politics, incumbent Mike Pearce said “You should begin to understand that’s $100 million of your money” at stake at the civic level.
“Out of all the councils, this has been the best group. We’ve worked well together. We’ve tackled some very unpopular things,” he said. “My job is to protect the taxpayer.”
Poonam Chahal, 18, said she was running to ensure all generations are represented at the council table.
“I want to give the youth a voice and that’s your children and that’s your grandchildren,” she said, adding in 10 years’ time, she would like to see a Penticton “that is well-built and I want to see our youth and elders together, as they’re kept separate right now.”
Helena Konanz said her background ranged from a career in professional sports, education in political science and business in health and wellness.
“I’d really like to help focus on making Penticton a dynamic place year-round,” she said. “I think it’s going to get tough. All of us in the community are going to have to work together. The economy, it’s a global issue and we’re going to have to look at it globally.”
Kevin Noonan, a retired businessman, said he would like to tap the agriculture sector for economic growth.
“There’s an abundance of agriculture business around here that seems to be poorly supported,” he said, adding that the city should become more entrepreneurial. “Things come up all the time.”
Gary Leaman, who said he had already done a “tour of duty on council a few years ago,” said although less critical during periods of slowing growth, leadership was required to ensure development is consistent with the OCP.
“You need the stamina to stand up and say, ‘This development is not right for the neighbourhood,’” he said, adding later that the city should target specific business as part of an identity.
Randy Kirkoski, a federal firearms officer for the RCMP, said the city should consider various options, be it partnering with private enterprise, to create new jobs in the city.
“I think we have to go after jobs offered by government, provincial and federal,” he said, noting earlier that the reality is jobs must be created. “We have to keep people here in the city.”
Lynn Kelsey is an advocate who works for the women’s centre in town, and she said young residents are held back by the lack of work and transit, in addition to housing.
“I see a lot of women who can’t move forward because they can’t find affordable housing,” she said.
Some candidates said they wanted to increase City Hall’s openness and communication with residents.
David Greenwood said he was running to give back to the community despite being busy with a young family and business, and said he wanted to actively engage residents in discussion.
“I think it’s the responsibility of council to step outside the doors of City Hall,” he said, adding later that the high-tech and film industries would fit in well with the community.
Terry Yeatman said he would love to see a voter turnout greater than 17 per cent.
“I want to have a transparent council, and accessible council,” he said, noting later how important it was to share ideas. “I think we have opportunities here, but we need ideas from you people.”
Overall, organizers were blown away by the evening’s success.
“I’m so grateful to be part of GenNext right now. How amazing is this?” Katie Bowling, who chairs the group, said at the end of the evening. “You go to a meeting like this and you have a voice.
“We packed a place because of something that matters.”