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What the heck is going on with Okanagan Falls?
PentictonNow begins the search for answers in this, the first in a multipart series on a community of contradictions.
A mere 15-minute drive from Penticton, Okanagan Falls, named after a since-dredged Okanagan River waterfall, is bordered by some of the prettiest geology in the region, including the dramatic Peach Cliff on its eastern flank.
It's adorned with sophisticated, award-winning wineries such as Wild Goose, Noble Ridge, and Liquidity -- the latter of which sold earlier this year to wine baron Anthony Von Mandl's Iconic Wineries for a cool $12.5 million.
To the south is Vaseux Lake, a nature lover's paradise. To the north, the southern edge of Skaha Lake and a long, mostly sandy beach just a couple blocks from downtown.
The area is a hub for sport cyclists, who go crazy for rural stretches like McLean Creek Road to the east and the ultra-challenging Green Lake Road to the west. And the ice cream shop known as Tickleberry's on the south side of town is one of the South Okanagan's busiest summer draws.
But into this seemingly idyllic scenario comes a hard dose of paradoxical reality. Simply put, the Okanagan Falls business and retail corridor -- the L-shaped section of Hwy 97 that runs right through the middle of town -- looks like it's dying.
Two summers ago, the lone grocery store, an IGA, shut its doors for good. Nothing has appeared so far to take its place.
The only hotel, closed for what seems like forever, still hasn't reopened.
After numerous fires over several years in an adjacent building, the local barber shop is history. One of two local gas stations, also a victim of fire, has been shuttered since 2016. And the only real estate office is now closed.
There aren't many eateries left open, and, apart from the Legion, there's currently no place to grab a beer.
And that's not all. Look around the thoroughfare and you'll find unkempt frontages, boarded windows, and a concerning number of "For Sale" and "Closed" signs.
Granted, several of the latter blame the pandemic. But outwardly anyway, there doesn't seem to be much hurry to open up again.
All of this of course is bad news for residents -- many of whom are getting on in years and find it difficult to make the trip to Penticton or Oliver for simple stuff like produce or a haircut.
Arguably just as worrisome is the lousy impression the main drag leaves on passers-by and tourists motoring through town.
PentictonNow spent the last week chatting with the people who live and work there and found that everyone we met was aware and troubled by the situation.
However, we also discovered something else. The love for OK Falls runs deep. Real deep.
When we flagged down folks on the street, the very same people who bombarded us with comments like, "It's terrible," "Everything is shutting down and everything costs so much to lease," and "I can’t even buy produce anymore," also hit us up with "We love Okanagan Falls," "It's a great town," and "I wouldn't live anywhere else."
More critically, there's a whole bunch of stuff currently going on -- including fresh news last week -- that actually bodes well for the future. You just have to look hard, beyond the obvious trouble spots, to find it.
We began our journey by chatting with a fellow named Matt Taylor. Taylor is the spokesperson for the Okanagan Falls Community Association, a group of concerned residents with a seven-pronged economic development and recovery plan they believe will add a necessary spark.
Standing in front of the infamously defunct IGA, Taylor, who moved with his wife to the community six years ago, was blunt.
"The IGA here sums up what's happening," he began, "and that's a deterioration in the assets and amenities valuable to the people who live here. We've lost our only grocery store, and the barber shop burned down this spring. There was a crack house behind his place and the multi-family housing unit right beside it burned down as well.
"The main street is decrepit, and the amenities that would encourage people to move here are either declining or closing."
The three-year OFCA plan, formed with input from local residents and ideas adapted from similar schemes in the past, ranges from downtown beautification to branding and marketing the community as a young family destination to more complex recovery suggestions.
It's been forwarded to the current local governing body, the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen, and Taylor said there's already an agreement in place to move forward on its goals.
But there's one part of the plan that seems to outweigh everything else: Incorporation. Indeed, the topic would come up again and again in our travels.
According to Taylor, "The RDOS does a great job is a lot of ways, but they're responsible for a huge area. They don’t champion our needs to the extent a mayor and council would. We don't yet have the facts on what incorporation would cost us and what we would gain, so we need a more informed discussion about that."
Later, Taylor took us to the beach, where he pointed to a big chunk of sand that's now a preserve for an at-risk plant called the short-rayed alkali aster. It was not particularly pretty.
"Only half of our beach is left. We have people ask us, 'Why don't you look after your beach?,' but we have no government to argue it. If this was Penticton, [Mayor] John Vassilaki would be picking up the phone and looking for middle ground somewhere else."
Trekking back to the IGA, Taylor alluded to a couple of nearby land parcels he hopes will ultimately factor into a recovery. One, he said, " is in "the heart of the downtown," and has recently been purchased. The other, "a 10-acre parcel at the south end of town," could also be developed.
A similarly pro-incorporation voice can be found up the street from the ex-IGA at the popular KJ Coffee Bar. Here, co-owner Karl Mancheron doesn’t hold back.
"We have a big belief that OK Falls is going to grow up at some point, and we want to be part of that," he said.
"But for sure it's not appealing to go to a town where you’ve got nothing. To be honest, that [the absence of amenities like grocery stores] was one of the reasons we moved (our home) to Kaleden, to be closer to Penticton."
Mancheron, who says KJ has provided thousands of $5 hot lunches in the past few years for nearby Okanagan Falls Elementary School, believes in the power of local involvement.
"Ninety-five percent of our customers, I know their name. I know what they do and what coffee they drink. I take the time to know each one. We need people with that sort of passion and commitment that believe this town can have a future."
But, he continued, incorporation is key.
"We need a city council. I'm trying to open a patio and I can't even deal with a city or town. I have to deal with the ministry of transportation because it's a highway. I have nobody to deal with.
"We just need something to happen here. We have the potential."
More to come tomorrow in Part II.
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