Longtime RDOS director ready to ride into sunset

Bill Schwarz cannot wait for the day he can turn off his cell phone, permanently. “And kick it into Skaha Lake,” he joked.

RDOS Area D director Bill Schwarz sits beneath the sculpture of Okanagan Falls cowboy legend Kenny McLean.

RDOS Area D director Bill Schwarz sits beneath the sculpture of Okanagan Falls cowboy legend Kenny McLean.

Bill Schwarz cannot wait for the day he can turn off his cell phone, permanently.

“And kick it into Skaha Lake,” he joked.

The gadget chirps, ironically, as he beings to explain why he won’t be running again for the Area D director position on the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen board.

“After nearly a decade it’s time to move on and let somebody else have a shot,” he said as he slips his Blackberry off his hip holster and turns it off. “I can come up with another 10 years of projects, but do I have the drive to push it? This is the type of job I can’t free my mind. At the end of the work day I can’t leave the job, because it is all about ideas and what is next. It does take a lot more work than I ever imagined. “

Especially when you consider the tumultuous time of when he threw his hat in the ring. Sun Rype had just closed its plant a year or two before and Schwarz said the community felt lost.

“The community felt like they had been kicked in the stomach and they did not want to get up again,” he said.

The director pushed for a sports park to give the community something they can take pride in and the development went through paid for by parkland dedication funds. Then in 2007 the main economic driver for Okanagan Falls, Weyerhaeuser, announced they were closing.

“It was again like Sun Rype. But I recall speaking with the media on Main Street in Okanagan Falls and I was saying that the word was it was a bad thing they closed. I said no, it’s a wonderful thing they closed because it gives us a chance to restructure the development in the area,” he said.

“It took a long time for someone to come up with a deal on that property, but they have done it. They are still waiting for the certificate of compliance to complete the deal, but the good news is we have had a depression during that period of time. The economy is getting better, the certificate of compliance will be there, Weyerhaeuser will get their cash and I understand there are already businesses ear-marked to move in there. Our economic development office is working to also bring business in. If we can put in 50 small businesses into that place we will never be in this position again where the one big employer pulls up stakes and leaves. We will be alive, alive and very well.”

Schwarz happened to stumble upon Okanagan Falls by accident. Working for ICBC in Vancouver his mediation work brought him to Vernon for a short stay and he decided to visit Penticton, a place he planned to soon retire to. With hotels booked solid, he and his wife ended up in Okanagan Falls.

“It was September, it was cold, no one else was in the complex and it was really run down and basic. We got up the next morning, looked out the front, across Christie Beach and down the lake, and my wife thought that looked pretty neat. We walked around the community and really liked it … a one-night stay turned into three nights,” said Schwarz.

But it was when the previous director told youth they could build a skateboard park in Kenyon Park and then told them they had to take it out after they raised the money and installed the equipment that he decided to throw his hat into the political ring.

“I was pretty incensed you don’t say yes, then say no. I became quite vocal, wrote letters to the editor that it was the wrong thing to do. People suggested ‘well Schwarz, put your money where your mouth is,’ so in November of 2002 I ran,” said Schwarz.

And the projects he dreamed up started taking shape — a fire protection plan for Apex, Christie Park acquisition, Keogan sports park, an economic development office, curbside pickup, a new wastewater treatment plant, a walkway around Skaha Lake, fire inspection to commercial and motel businesses, beautification committee and many more.

Then, of course, is the Kenny McLean statue. Schwarz was the chair of the committee which helped erect the life-sized bronze statue in Centennial Park last summer.

“The Kenny McLean statue was amazing. When I took a look while up on the podium last summer at the unveiling and saw there was over 1,000 people in that little park for the dedication,” he said stopping short. “That is a third of the population of the town — imagine if a third of the population of Vancouver showed up for something. This was something really special and the people said that is ours.”

Referring to the community as the little train that could, Schwarz said his advice to the next director elected is to simply listen to what the people want, keep them in the know of what is happening and watch the town pull together to get it.

“I’m hoping the next person that comes in sees that because this is a fabulous community,” said Schwarz.