Valley business

Okanagan Falls is hoping to make an economic recovery.

Residents and businesses in Okanagan Falls have committed to a three-year plan to breathe new life into the town.

At last week’s Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen board meeting, a report by Kettle Valley Consulting was reviewed and

discussed by board members as a template to try and revive the community’s short-term economic future.

Ron Obirek, the RDOS director for Electoral Area D (Skaha East/OK Falls) and a contributor to the consultant’s report, said the three-year recovery plan details an economic development vision and COVID-19 recover plan that will be used by not-for-profit organizations, RDOS staff and board members and the community at large.

“The plan is a call to action for all stakeholders in Okanagan Falls to contribute to the economic fortunes of the community,” reads the executive summary in the 2020 Economic Development and Recovery Plan for Okanagan Falls.

“Okanagan Falls has suffered from a gradual economic decline and COVID-19 has exacerbated this trend. There is a new for a new strategy to reverse this trend and build momentum in the community.”

The 40-page report is available on the RDOS website at www.rdos.ca.

Some of the recommendations are already underway, such as developing events to attract tourists and advocating for better internet connections and social services.

Others ideas will require funding from the RDOS in future years, such a marketing campaign to attract young families and installing new signs at both ends of town. Another recommendation calls for renewed discussion about incorporating to form a local government in Okanagan Falls.

At present, despite some growth in the wine and wood-manufacturing industries, Okanagan Falls is “in a state of economic paralysis,” states the report.

The sudden closure of the community’s only grocery store in September of 2019 has caused great anxiety, resulting in the formation of the new Okanagan Falls Community Association, which focuses on the need to diversify the local economy, attract new investment and improve the economic state of the community, said Obirek.

The plan does not try to reinvent past economic development initiatives, but build on current assets and momentum from community groups that is already underway, he added.

“The overarching goal in all of this is to make things better in the community,” Obirek said in an interview following last week’s RDOS board meeting.

While there remains a lot anxiety amongst business owners and local residents, there is also a silver lining and things are much better than when the pandemic first happened in early March, he said.

Robin Irwin, hired as the community’s economic development co-ordinator a couple of years ago, is moving on to a new position, but the process to hire a replacement is almost complete, said Obirek.

Irwin played a key role in preparation of the economic recovery plan document and has committed to staying involved as a volunteer.

Obirek says there have been ongoing talks over the past year to find a new business owner willing to open an independent grocery store in Okanagan Falls to replace the closed IGA.

“There has been a lot of effort made by many interested parties,” he said. “The landlord has an agent engaged in efforts with various people and those talks are ongoing. I’ve had lots of engagement with community members who have had contact with others who have interest. I’ve also had contact with business owners in other communities who have expressed interest.

“The short story is there are ongoing efforts. Is there going to be a success? I think eventually there will be.”

The IGA was a success for many years and there’s no reason an Okanagan Falls grocery store can’t succeed again, said Obirek.

“Everybody needs food … and I believe the demand is there,” he said. “The point is the store has to provide quality food at a reasonable price. This is how the market works.”

The decision to close the store wasn’t made by the former owner-operator, but by corporate head office in Burnaby, and “that was sad because they did not provide a good supply, which drove prices much higher and resulted in a less-than-enthusiastic response from regular customers,” said Obirek.

Consecutive summers in 2017 and 2018 where wildfires and flooding combined to dramatically reduce the number of tourists visiting the community also played a significant role in the store eventually closing, said Obirek.

Obirek remains optimistic the economic action plan will make a significant difference and result in current businesses succeeding and new entrepreneurs moving into the community.

“The fact is this is an amazing community and its biggest strengths is the people,” he said.

“Everywhere you go, the people show up and they care. That is not the concern. The community has already taken action and we’re going to see positive results. When we look forward, there are so many reasons to be excited and optimistic.”

Obirek noted the plan also contains recommendations for revitalizing the town centre.

“Big picture, there is a lot to be excited about. We’re trending in a very positive direction. There are a lot of positive people. Ninety-nine percent of this community is amazing, but you get to town centre and see that little strip with a few businesses shut down, it really gives you a false impression,” said Obirek.

“We can change that and improve on that. I’m very optimistic about how exciting the future is.”