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The saviour of Okanagan Falls? (Part II)

A vertical farm, a business park, and a resurrection of the community's traditional social hub and party palace.

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

Individually, each of the above would be tremendous news for beaten down Okanagan Falls. But when taken together, it's straight-up stunning.

And it's all due to wealthy entrepreneur Garry Peters, his family, his company (Avery Group), and his passion for OK Falls.

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

Yesterday we spent some time at Avery's newest purchase, the OK Falls Hotel. Today, we head a few minutes south to the 114-acre former-Weyerhaeuser parcel where most of the magic is almost ready to happen.

Our first stop is the business park -- named "Avery Business Park" -- and it doesn't take long to understand the enormity of the project. There'll be twenty properties in all, each at least a hectare (approximately 2.5 acres) in size, and all the infrastructure to support them, spread over approximately 90 acres.

"Some lots could have multiple businesses," speculated project manager Michael Owen as he showed us the lay of the land from the cab of his truck. "One could be a strip mall. We don't know yet."

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

Just as imposing is the sheer scope of work currently being undertaken to level the ground. More than a dozen pieces of heavy-duty equipment were scurryig about when we arrived, reshaping a spectacularly irregular surface.

"We started working on the subdivision in November," said Owen. "Most of the big grading will be done by May or June of this year and the subdivision will start looking like a subdivision.

"The pipe work will be after that. There'll be sewer and water. It'll be a sanitary sewer system connected to Okanagan Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant. Storm water will be handled through ditches so any rain that falls on the road will go to ditches and be directed safely away."

"We expect some occupancy by 2024."

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

According to Owen, the land has been rezoned from heavy industrial (a holdover from the Weyerhaueser days) to general industrial to "open up the range of potential business."

"Plus," he added, "this lightens things up a bit for residents, because heavy industrial means asphalt plants and stuff like that and nobody really wants to be near that."

But if they build it, will they come? That’s the question we asked Garry Peters later about his "tens of millions of dollars" of business park investment. Why will businesses situate themselves in smallish, remote-ish OK Falls?

"I think businesses will come here because it's quaint," he said. "It's quiet. There's opportunity in OK Falls.

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

"And then there's the price. In the lower mainland, business park acreage is up to seven million an acre. We'll be well below that. We won’t hit two million per acre."

We suggested that the lower mainland commands such a high price because, with three million people in the vicinity, it's a better spot for businesses to locate. Peters isn't so sure.

"It'll take specialized customers here, but right now I have four or five people who want to relocate," he said. "I have one that offered me money, but I can’t sell yet because we haven’t yet completed our requirements for the subdivision.

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

"If you're shipping north or into Alberta, this is a very good location. If you're shipping into the United States, this is a good location. Some businesses won’t suit it, but a lot of businesses will."

Moreover, said Peters, there's very little regional competition. Flat, fully-serviced industrially-zoned land is apparently rare in the Okanagan Valley.

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

"We had a call a while back from a city councilor in Kelowna that said they'd heard about our holdings and wanted to give us a lead on people who've been enquiring up there and they just don’t have any," he said.

As for the type of business expected at Avery Business Park, Peters believes manufacturing, warehousing and wood products would all be good fits.

"Plus we're planning on adding amendments such as a coffee shop in the area to serve the needs of the businesses in the park," he added.

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

But a new coffee shop is just one of the spin-off benefits. Another, more important community benefit is an upgraded infrastructure.

"We'll contribute to the community water and sanitation systems," said Peters, "and that's part of the contribution we make for them to give us the approvals on the industrial park.

"So not only are we doing what the industrial park needs, but in preparing for the additional jobs we bring, they need more infrastructure too. And we'll be contributing to that."

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

According to Michael Owen, "The entire community will benefit greatly because of the new reservoir we're building (for additional water demands and fire protection) and the sanitation upgrades we've committed to."

Meanwhile just down the road from the business park but still inside the perimeter of the 114-acre ex-Weyerhaeuser site is the massive vertical farm building named "Avery Family Farms."

How massive is it? Its footprint is 50,000 square feet. That's 1.15 acres. And even though it's effectively just a single storey, it's a 32-foot-tall storey.

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

We walked the exterior of the facility with Lead Grower/Researcher Louise Benckhuysen and General Manager Mark Sundin. Along the way, Sundin gave us a primer on what to expect but sadly wouldn’t let us inside. Not yet anyway.

And the very first thing we learned? Though a vertical farm might seem like an extra-tall, extra-proficient greenhouse, there's much more to it than that.

"We're a completely controlled environment," said Sundin. "The big difference is a greenhouse does open venting and that allows pests in. But when you're doing a controlled environment, you control everything.

"The humidity, the temperature, everything. The controlled environment is all about replicating mother nature. It requires a fair bit of high-tech stuff. It's high-tech agriculture."

<who>Photo Credit: Avery Group</who>

That includes the walls, erected from a prefabricated system that went up in less than a year. The exterior is hyper-insulated too -- an incredible R48 rating for the walls and R52 for the ceiling.

"Our building has been custom designed for sustainability," said Sundin, "and to use less electricity for heating and cooling."

Even the human element is rigidly controlled.

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

"We go through a lot of steps to make sure we're sanitized prior to entering any of the rooms," said Sundin, adding that Avery Family Farms will be better prepared and researched than many prior vertical farms.

"There's a lot of activity in the North American vertical farm market," he said, "but some of them are failing, poorly planned. Maybe the wrong crops, or using the wrong technology or running intro pest problems.

"But as a team, we've really done a ton of research prior to coming up with this building plan and design. Our goal is not just to do it profitably, but also to produce some of the best quality coming out of North America."

<who>Photo Credit: Avery Group</who>

In the beginning and for the short term anyway, all that research and quality will be funneled into the production of just a single crop. Lettuce.

"Lettuce only for now because it's the easiest and we're just beginning in this endeavour," explained Garry Peters. "Having said that, we've utilized a relationship with some Japanese growers who have been doing exactly what we're going to do for the past 15 years.

"And before we go out and start selling our wares, we'll be in production for a few months, producing a product we'll probably just give to food banks."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Louise Benckhuysen, Rachelle Peters, Mark Sundin

Eventually, if all goes according to plan, the farm will expand into other crops. Indeed, there may even be other farm buildings in the cards.

"But we need partners with large retail chains," said Peters. "and you have to prove to them we can be a good partner. I think it'll only take us a couple months and we'll be able to make commitments to the large retail chains, primarily within BC for now."

We asked Peters why, if vertical farms are "the wave of the future" as he maintains, there aren’t more of them. And he was succinct.

"Because it's very cash intensive,' he said. "Think of it. A purpose-built building, that's ten million. Another ten million in equipment. And then you need expertise in lighting, fertilizing, the right nutrients. It's science. It's agritech.

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

"And there have been a lot of failures before us. That's why it's taken us three years to get to this point. We're being very careful."

Our tour of all facilities complete, we talked with Peters about the future and how he sees it shaping up.

He carefully throws out figures like 2,000 -- the potential number of people, give or take a few, he believes may have jobs at Avery Business Park once it's fully built out and occupied in the next ten to 15 years.

He talks about OK Falls incorporation and why he's in favour of it, saying, "I think small communities need the help of the provincial government, and from what I've heard you can apply for government grants and have policing in your area."

And when pushed he even admitted he's looked at establishing or investing in more businesses in the area.

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

"Not right now," he said, "but I have looked at a couple things and they're more along the same lines. There's also been talk of a childcare facility and a woman's shelter, and I said I'm interested in helping the community and if they need those things we'll look at it. But right now our focus is on what we have."

Despite all of the above, Peters doesn’t come across as self-aggrandizing. And he doesn’t see himself or his business as a "saviour."

"No, not a saviour," he laughed. "When they lost a lot of jobs there, OK Falls got a little down. But when one thing leaves, there are other opportunities, and we've always looked at this as an opportunity.

"Luckily we’re financially capable and we don’t have to talk to the bank about loans. We're in a good position to go in there and make some strong businesses and have it work for us and the community and the Southern Okanagan in general.

"It’s a good thing."

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