Breathing new life into Okanagan Falls is expected to begin this spring with work on a new downtown economic revitalization strategy that follows on the heels of a more comprehensive planning exercise.
Creation of the new strategy was recommended in an economic development action plan produced for the area in 2012. Economic development co-ordinator John Powell acknowledged people are anxious to see some results.
“It’s the nature of the beast, unfortunately, but a lot is happening,” he said, pointing to waterfront improvements as one example.
The revitalization strategy, which will focus on one-kilometre stretch of Highway 97, is expected to tackle some of Okanagan Falls’ issues head-on.
“People’s first impression of the community when they’re coming in here is empty commercial premises, undeveloped lots and, quite frankly, quite a few buildings that are in a poor state of repair,” Powell said.
“This isn’t exactly relaying the image and the message that we’re trying to get across to the outside world that we have aspirations to grow, we want to invest in ourselves and improve the quality of life of our citizens.”
To chart a way forward, two Vancouver-based consulting firms have been awarded a $49,500 contract to meet with the B.C. Transportation Ministry, businesses, residents and community groups, who will provide input into what’s troubling Okanagan Falls.
The consultants will draw up some proposals that will be presented at an open house, likely in May, before preparing a final report with recommendations.
Powell said problems he commonly hears about include parking issues, a lack of sidewalks and traffic concerns, and is hopeful the strategy will come up with solutions.
“We’re in a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation at the moment because the businesses aren’t wanting to invest here because the customers aren’t stopping, and the customers aren’t stopping because the businesses aren’t there,” he said.
The strategy comes at a critical time if Okanagan Falls is to capture benefits from the new jail to be constructed just north of Oliver, said Tom Siddon, the area director for the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.
“We could miss the bus if we’re not prepared for what’s going to unfold,” he said.
Siddon noted much of the economic development office’s recent focus has been on attracting new industrial activity to the former Weyerhaeuser mill site, which closed in 2007, but a shift is needed now.
“When you look at Okanagan Falls — and I don’t mean to do the town a disservice — it’s kind of at a hiatus,” he said.
Siddon thinks a focal point or town square to create a separate commercial area and gathering place between the highway and Skaha Lake beach is a must for revitalization.
“We should create a focal point for something in the community that’s unique to Okanagan Falls,” he said.
The consultants’ final report is expected in June and will conclude the first phase of the revitalization strategy, said Powell, who added there is no timeline in place yet to begin the second chapter that would see actual improvements.