A Healthy Community on the Rise

City of Kelowna

Situated by the gorgeous Okanagan Lake with a population of 170,000 in the central Okanagan area and 119,000 in Kelowna itself, Kelowna is very much a “summer resort community” with an abundance of tourist activity. In addition to its scenic allure, Kelowna is in an optimal location for any new entrepreneur. Indeed, access to the rest of the world is probably one of Kelowna’s strongest marketing points, with United Airlines providing daily nonstop flights from Kelowna to all over the country and to some major hubs in the United States, making it convenient for business travellers.

While many cities are still struggling to pull themselves out of the recession of 2009, Kelowna is growing. Its 4.5 percent population increase over 2011 is in part why Kelowna has the fourth fastest growing population in Canada.

Mayor Walter Gray had a lot to say about the city he so loves and has been an integral part of for more than ten years. Mayor Gray has served as mayor over two separate terms. “The old Gray mayor is new again,” he jokes and explains that, “It was pretty widely known there was plenty of dissatisfaction in council, so there was a movement here totally independent of my decision to run; I actually recruited people off the streets to run for council.” For the first time in Kelowna’s 107 year history, the majority of the elected council members are new to politics. The new members also all knew one another and were well connected to the community’s business and social life.

The mayor himself was involved in broadcasting before deciding to run for public office; “Years ago, in 1965, I set out to own my own radio station and started with transmitter sites called Salmon Arm and Revelstoke which were essentially satellites, then moved back to build a radio station in Kelowna, CKIQ, and later bought and sold a few more.” Mayor Gray admits, “First time elections are sometimes a bit of a popularity contest and so it helps if in you happen to be in involved in broadcasting or be familiar in the community in some way as people tend to feel more comfortable with people they already know.”

Frequently, the mayor is invited out to retirement homes to cut the cake for centenarian birthdays. “Looking at the demographic of Kelowna, we have the second largest oldest aged population in Canada which is eight years older than most Canadians. There is actually quite a drought of the younger demographic of 20 to 30 years old and our average age is 50. British Columbia is, by all measure, the healthiest population of all provinces in Canada. Of all the five regions of British Columbia, the Okanagan area is the part of Canada that is living longer and healthier.”

Mayor Gray confides, “We have a huge hole in our demographic make-up. There are two theories for the reasons why the youth population is so low and one being that the job market is tough and for young people there are not many jobs. This tends to discourage young people from hanging around. Or they might be young but they travel in and out of town for business as the airport is so proficient, then they come home to their families.” The second factor is Kelowna’s high housing costs though the mayor emphasises that the prices are not so far as out of reach as they are portrayed. “Of course, statistically this is because we have a huge part of our city boundary on Okanagan Lake,” he explains. “From the south end of the city to the north end is roughly 18 kilometres wide, and every square foot along there except for the downtown area has 50 and 100 foot lots of residential, multimillion dollar properties along the lake. When you take those houses, single and multifamily homes, and you add that into the overall mix of the rest of the community, it drastically skews our average price of housing to be more expensive than it really is. It’s too bad that you can’t just peel back the higher end market and let it take care of itself so the cost of housing would look a lot more attainable in general.”

The Mayor continues, “What we have to do in our study on debunking this myth is publish the real cost of housing in Kelowna. We have to repackage all that together to explain the breakdown of taxes and insurances etc. And the real focus in council is, what do we do to make Kelowna more appealing to the younger generation? Only then do I think we can rebalance the population demographics. The biggest opportunity is to positively exploit the opportunities that are already becoming apparent and the fact that we are striving to become the new Silicon Valley; the area is already being nicknamed ‘Silicon Vineyard,’ mixing in the wine producing aspect as well. Also a couple of young guys masterminded a local company called Club Penguin and sold it to Disney for nearly $400 million plus which was a big driver for us to expand with United Airlines to provide a Los Angeles (LAX) connection.”

Attempts to lure the younger demographic include making the downtown cultural district attractive to those with a more active lifestyle. “We are redoing our main street to accommodate less traffic and to make the area more walkable and more bike friendly. We are building on ‘active transportation’ and including cycling and walking trails within downtown areas so when people come, they’ll hear a silent message stating vehicles are not as welcome downtown as pedestrians and bikes. It makes a unique way to enjoy Kelowna’s more than 96 food and beverage establishments in the downtown area.”

Mayor Gray is quite exhilarated about the fact that all these and more changes are underway for his best kept secret of a city. The city also has a number of green initiatives planned. “We have laid plans for reaching the goal in terms of our environmental objective, to reduce the community’s use of greenhouse gases by 33 percent by 2020. We are engaging in a partnership with a power company called District Energy which is part of Fortis Inc. from Newfoundland.” The idea is to have a central boiler area and heat water using recycled materials and sawdust from the nearby sawmill. Hot water would then be piped to the major businesses in downtown Kelowna, reducing energy costs. “Tolko is the sawmill in the north end of downtown that we would connect to by putting pipes through our landfill so we can capture gases and convert it to green fuel energy. We are really into the environment and this new council is really pro-business but very conscientious. If it’s good for the environment, it’s good for business.”

The mayor aims to accomplish several things over the next year. “We want to make the downtown or heart of the city healthy. What we were able to in the first month of office, is have the Interior Health Authority – which is the publically funded healthcare provider for us out in the province of British Columbia – decide to modernize health delivery and health management by moving each of its units that were scattered all over the area to one central location under one roof, downtown. When I became elected, I was wondering if we could create an incentive to relocate our offices to downtown as well.” As a result of this development, there could be more than a thousand jobs moving into the downtown area. “The Interior Health development is also helping to rebuild the sidewalks and associated parkades right downtown on the lake, and we will be building Phase 2 of Stewart Park this coming year. A public pier is being built by the private sector for public use and will be up and running by May of this year. We will be building more boat moorings as there are limited areas in the marina at this point.”

The City of Kelowna is constantly promoting healthy living and active transportation, and the Mayor says, “Come to Kelowna, park your boat, walk up Bernard Avenue and enjoy the downtown area.” Whether it’s for retirement, business development, or a vacation, Kelowna is the place to be.

June 22, 2018, 6:40 PM EDT

A Proactive Approach to Resolving a Longstanding Debate

About forty skilled Central and South American workers from Ecuador, Peru, Columbia and Costa Rica came to British Columbia, Canada as temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in 2006. This story incited Labourers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) call for reforms to Canada’s TFW program (TFWP) and the International Mobility Program (IMP). LiUNA, a powerful voice within the construction industry with over half a million members – 110,000 of whom are in Canada – has been the only Canadian union to address the issue.