For me, the top story of last year isn’t really a 2017 story.
This story started in 2015 when Penticton city council agreed to lease a portion of Skaha Lake Park to a developer to build a commercial waterslide complex. Or did it start in 2013, when city hall asked for expressions of interest from developers that wanted to take over the marina and build a commercial amenity at the corner of the lake?
That expression of interest request, which detailed the possibility of leasing a chunk of the park, went largely unnoticed, as did the silence of the developers on their project — because, they said, the city had them sign a non-disclosure agreement.
When the information was finally released to the public, a month before city council approved the lease, that’s when the public noticed what was about to happen to the park. By late July, people were protesting in front of city hall; but not just the five or 10 a protest usually draws, but hundreds.
From there, it was close to two years more of protests, civil suits, conspiracy accusations and more, including tens of thousands of dollars being spent by both sides as the issue remained the most divisive topic in town.
What makes this my top story of 2017 is that this is the year it all finally came to an end. After renegotiating the deal with the developers to remove the park lease and protect green space in the park at the end of 2016, the deal ended completely in September, with the city announcing it would pay the penalty fee for cancelling the deal.
It wasn’t just the fact of the long battle ending that is important. It’s also important because it showed that you can fight city hall and win. It also brought positive change. From the mayor brushing off the protests in the beginning, he has now admitted that the city and council made mistakes, especially in communicating with the public and understanding what the community wants.
The new parks and recreation master plan is yet to be finished, so it’s not yet clear how, or even whether, the plan will limit commercial development in parks. It is also too early to say if the city’s new engagement and communication strategy, developed partly in response to the Skaha Lake Park battle, will be carried into the long term and through successive councils.
But at least the direction the city is moving in right now is a positive one.
Steve Kidd is the senior reporter for the Penticton Western News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.