With a little more than three weeks to go before the first flight, an agreement is close to being finalized between the City of Penticton and WestJet Encore.
Tickets, however, are on sale already for the daily flights, which begin Oct. 26. with flights from Calgary arriving at 2:21 p.m. and departing Penticton at 2:55 p.m.
Sandra Oldfield, owner of Tinhorn Creek Winery, isn’t concerned about the deal not being finalized yet. She’s headed to Calgary later this month just so she can fly back on the first direct flight from Calgary to Penticton.
Tinhorn Creek is also running a contest offering six seats on the flight for special guests who will be wined and dined when they arrive.
The winners, she said, will dine at the Miradoro restaurant at Tinhorn Creek, stay at the Watermark Beach Resort in Osoyoos and go on a special tour and tasting session the next day.
Oldfield said she set up the contest to help get people excited about WestJet connecting to the South Okanagan wine region.
“We contacted them (WestJet) because we were so excited when they made the announcement,” said Oldfield. “Nothing we have heard makes me nervous about it at all.”
One of the stumbling blocks to completing negotiations is a $100,000 marketing fund, part of the incentive package offered to WestJet. Though tax breaks and other incentives are permitted, the municipal charter prevents the city from paying money directly to a private corporation.
“I think we are on the path to solving those. We don’t have any real contract issues,” said Colleen Pennington, the city’s economic development officer.
“We needed to do some other work with our lawyers and really, that is what is happening right now,” she continued, adding that they have been considering passing the money through the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, especially if the city could get matching funds that way.
“We explored a number of ideas on where this belongs and where it fits. Let’s just say I have been talking to the lawyers a lot,” said Pennington.
Mayor Garry Litke said it is not about the contract, it is about the flights.
“Our commitment is to fill the planes,” said Litke. “They’re bringing the planes, we are committed to ensuring those seats are occupied.”
Litke is also unconcerned by what happened in Kamloops last year, where WestJet began offering direct-to-Vancouver flights, only to end it this February when their seat quotas weren’t being met. Flights there are still being offered to Calgary, and Edmonton is expected to be added in the new year.
“We have a one-year commitment,” said Litke, adding that WestJet recognizes they are starting the flights during the region’s quietest season. “They are expecting to do poorly in the first few months, that is for sure.”
Pennington said she is working with other economic development agencies, tourism groups and Community Futures to fill seats.
“We need to make sure we hit this one out of the park,” said Pennington. “We need a winter (tourism) season.”
Oldfield said it is particularly helpful for the wine industry to link to Calgary.
“The unsaid thing about this and why it is so great is it really does connect Penticton with everything to the east,” said Oldfield. “It is so easy now for me to get people from Toronto, or anywhere else, that are familiar with us, tell them to fly WestJet straight into Penticton.
“It doesn’t just open up Calgary. It opens up the rest of the east to us.”