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The saviour of Okanagan Falls?

Two and a half years ago PentictonNow wrote exhaustively about Okanagan Falls -- its evaporating grocery store, its disappearing jobs, its decaying downtown, and those who were trying to turn the ship around.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

You'll find those articles here and here and here and here and here.

Told you it was exhaustive.

Since then, there have been developments -- some good, some meh.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> LIttle Falls Foods fizzled and died

Like the grocery store that arrived, then fizzled, then died. Or the other grocery store that moved in where the dearly departed IGA once stood and has since proven to be a keeper. Or the Centex gas station in the middle of the strip that finally re-opened after years of question marks.

More recently, a 40-unit townhome development several blocks from the centre of town named Lemonade Lane has broken ground. And later this month, the Regional District board will consider an application for another townhome project -- this time 32 units -- directly across Hwy 97 from the new grocery store.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Belich's AG Foods has prospered

As for incorporation, which many in the know believe is mandatory for the community to turn the corner, the wheels continue to chug along.

Matt Taylor, president of the citizen-led Okanagan Falls Community Association and now RDOS Area D director after unseating incumbent Ron Obirek in October, said the next step is a "cost benefit incorporation study."

"The Regional District continues their discussions with the Province on next steps in the overall process that could lead to an incorporation within Area D," he said.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Matt Taylor

"Provincial staff are working on grant funding and related decisions needed to support the next step in that process, a cost benefit incorporation study that could begin by the middle of 2023."

Still, as of right now, the L-shaped OK Falls Hwy 97 strip -- the commercial and retail heart of the region, the frontage visitors see as they drive through and the prime area of concern for the OK Falls Community Association -- doesn’t look much different than in 2020, when we rightfully called it "downtrodden."

And it’s likely to remain that way for awhile. Real change takes time.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

Fortunately, the little community at the southern tip of Skaha Lake now has a saviour of sorts. His name is Garry Peters and he just might be the best news OK Falls has had in a long time.

Back in 2020, weeks before PentictonNow published its series, Peters' business, called "Avery Group," purchased a massive 114-acre industrially-zoned parcel just a couple kilometers southeast of town.

<who>Photo Credit: Garry Peters</who> Garry and Victoria Peters

It was once the home of mighty Weyerhaeuser, which operated a large mill way back when and at one point employed 200 regional people. But Weyerhaeuser pulled out in 2007.

Indeed, it was the Weyerhaeuser pullout and the loss of all those jobs that many saw as the beginning of OK Falls' modern troubles. And now, after a brief fling with an unfulfilled cannabis production facility and almost a decade of dormancy otherwise, the very same land was finally under new ownership.

Could it be that this singular property would once again play a key role in the fate of the community just to the north?

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Circa 2020 signage at former Weyerhaeuser property

It looked that way. At the time, Peters talked about a light industrial park and a vertical farming operation. There were conceivably tons of jobs up there in the future.

A little more than two years later and Peters has been as good as his word.

Scratch that. He's been better.

That light industrial park? It's well on the way. The vertical farming operation? It’s called "Avery Family Farms" and it'll be ready to launch before summer.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Site of Avery Business Park

But that's not all. In November, Avery Group also made moves toward plugging one of the biggest holes in the depressed Okanagan Falls downtown scene when it purchased the long-closed OK Falls Hotel, once home to the region's most popular pub/restaurant and social hub.

And that's precisely where we started our tour of all things Avery last week.

Our guide was Rachelle Peters, daughter of Garry and vertical farm quality assurance manager. She has a degree in Operations and Quality Management and moved to OK Falls from the North Okanagan in September of 2022 specifically for the position.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> OK Falls Hotel

Peters took her time showing us around a building that’s clearly in the midst of change. She also answered our most pressing question: When will those hotel rooms be open to the public?

Turns out they won’t be. Instead, the company will use the rooms (13 freshly renovated rooms in all, every one of them on the top floor, none seemingly larger than a couple hundred square feet and most with shared washrooms) to house out of town employees at Avery's other area operations -- like the vertical farm.

Two of those employees -- Erin Wright and partner AJ Cosco -- were there the day we toured, staying at the "hotel" and helping with chores like painting before their positions open up at the farm.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Erin Wright, AJ Cosco

They came from East Vancouver, arriving in OK Falls just three weeks ago. And they seemed thrilled over the prospect of their new lives. And their new two-minute commute.

"We weren't super happy in our careers back home and we've always loved the Okanagan," said Wright, "and this opportunity came up and everyone is so full of energy who's involved with this project. And we're excited about the sustainability."

Neither has any special vertical farming skills though, so we asked Peters why Avery simply didn't hire local people instead.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Rooms at the OK Falls Hotel

"They're family," she said, "and family is important to us. We know them well and we know they're hard working. Our goal is they'll eventually be leaders.

"But soon we'll be hiring people from OK Falls and the Okanagan. There are 40 positions at Avery Family Farms we hope to fill with locals."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> The "hotel" breakfast room

Leaving the second floor behind, we made our way to the hotel's food and beverage facility on the ground floor. And this is where the news gets considerably more exciting for the general public -- residents and tourists alike.

Before the hotel shut down in 2018, the venue was the most happening spot in the region. Its closure was one more big blow to the community.

But now, renovated and brightened, it's due to re-open this spring.

According to Garry Peters, the hotel project fills dual roles rather nicely and offers a kickstart to a community that needs "a push in the arm."

"Why did we buy it?" he asked, acknowledging the $2.8 million price tag. "It certainly doesn’t fit the return requirements you normally want. But what it does do is get the community excited.

"We probably could have put employees up somewhere or bought some condos cheaper. But when you combine that with giving back to the community and getting things active, I think it's one of the biggest reasons."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> The bar

Peters comes about his desire to operate in the South Okanagan and OK Falls in particular quite honestly. His mom was born in Penticton and spent a dozen early years in OK Falls. Peters himself summered as a youth at his aunt and uncle's place in Naramata.

And to Peters, family is a big deal.

"It's a huge motivator for me," he said. "My wife Victoria is my partner in this and deserves a lot of the credit. All of the people we employ now are like family, and of course there's my daughter Rachelle. It's a family business."

And now, he's excited that word of the reopening of the revamped food and beverage biz is making a social media splash.

"Avery Family Farms is tens of millions of dollars of investment," he said. "And the business park is another tens of millions of dollars of investment. But for the relatively small investment we made in the hotel, we have more people on Facebook commenting on it than anything.

"It'll be great for the community."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

Leasing and running the venue will be a guy familiar to veteran OK Falls residents. And to folks up in Summerland too, where he owns Giant's Head Brewing.

His name is Randy Stoltz and it's not his first go-'round at the hotel. He managed the restaurant/pub for three years in the 2010s, right up 'til the whole thing shut down.

"This is kind of like Chapter Two," he said. "And it'll be much different than Chapter One."

"We're bringing a much more updated concept to this facility than it had previous. The day of the dark and dingy old OK Falls hotel are now history. We're moving into a funky upper scale, but still with a lot of reasonably priced offerings."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> The bar

We checked out the two rooms that make up the venue -- a large, adult-only liquor-primary operation on the south end and a smaller, kid-friendly food-primary café on the north. Stoltz didn't want a lot of photos as both were mid-renovation, but it looked promising.

"The liquor store is gone," he said. "My plan is to bring back music bingo that was very successful Wednesday nights, and Mexican Mondays. And we'll do some interactive games. There'll be TVs too."

When it opens, there'll be 100 seats in all, including 40 on the patio. The seemingly ambitious hours will be 11 am to 11 pm every single day of the week.

"I did those hours before," said Stoltz with a smile. "I also changed the licensing because breakfast was very popular Sundays. So as liquor-primary, it allowed me to serve alcohol at 9 am on Sundays. Caesars were very popular."

Stoltz said it'll launch in similar fashion to Giant's Head in Summerland.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"We'll do a one-evening dry run with families and friends," he said. "And then we'll just open. There won’t be a huge grand opening."

Judging by the level of excitement the last time the venue promised to re-open, under prior management in March of 2020, "huge" might actually be precisely what it is.

Tomorrow in Part II we cover the big stuff -- the vertical farm and that 20-lot business park. And we'll chat more with the man making it all happen.

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