Tourism Kelowna recently broke ground on their new location by Kerry Park, and the centre will open in early summer 2018 if everything goes as planned. We're generally pleased with the direction of this initiative, but we’ve noticed that this topic rarely passes mention without the tag “controversial” applied to it. So we decided to explore the information that's out there for the average citizen like us and see what the hubbub was about. We found that there have been some missteps, detractors and speculations along the path to that ceremonial shovel being driven into the soil last week.
Three Plans, and an Approval
Our investigation begins with Tourism Kelowna's first proposed plan to move the Visitor Centre into City Park in 2013. This initial proposition was met with disapproval due to its overreaching size. A revised follow-up proposal also failed to gain approval even after scaling back plans by 75%. And so ended the discussion of the Visitor Centre structure existing within the City Park confines.
The following year a new proposal by Tourism Kelowna to build the centre at the foot of the Queensway by the waterfront were initially rebuffed because it encroached on lands covered by the Simpson Covenant.
The Simpson Covenant, in place for 71 years, covers lands on what was the site of the Kelowna Sawmill Company. It dictates use of the lands bounded by Okanagan Lake and Ellis Street, Doyle and Queensway Avenues. The land was turned over to the city by Stanley M. Simpson in 1945 for civic purposes only – the land must never be sold, must be used for municipal purposes, and must not to be used for commercial or industrial purposes.
Sharron Simpson, daughter of Stanley Simpson (and former one term city councillor who was defeated in her bid for the mayor's chair in 1988), believed these initial plans violated the covenant. At the heart of the issue for Simpson was that the retail store located in the proposed centre contravened the covenant's intentions.
Consequently, Tourism Kelowna, after an inclusive public consultation process altered the plans to remove the administrative offices leaving just the visitor centre on the waterfront, and also setting the building 15 meters back from the water as per public preference. "We've realigned the building to remove it from the Simpson Covenant lands, which was really important to our residents and to city council as well," said Tourism Kelowna chair Daniel Bibby through the local media at the time. "Our building will be 40 per cent smaller. The public weren't crazy about the offices being downtown, so we worked on a plan to eliminate the second floor, which had administrative offices."
In January of this year, council voted 7-1 at a packed public hearing to approve Tourism Kelowna's application to use the site at the foot of Queensway for the new $2.8 million tourist info centre.
The new hotel proposal with Tourism Kelowna's Visitor Centre in the foreground.
Why Downtown on the Waterfront?
The current Tourism Kelowna building on Harvey may technically see a lot of tourists' eyeballs, however, that may be through their rear view mirrors. The location is only accessible to southbound vehicular traffic on the highway – there’s no eastbound/northbound nor pedestrian traffic representing a significant lost opportunity. Also, as per the Tourism Kelowna website, "the current location does not represent Kelowna in a manner in-keeping with the quality of tourist experience – it does not convey sense of place that results in positive impressions and stays". I think we can all agree with that.
The numbers seem to bear this out – former Tourism Kelowna CEO Nancy Cameron stated last year to the media that use of the centre continues to drop. Only 20,000 people out of nearly 2,000,000 visitors stopped in this year (2016). Tourism Kelowna argues, "a successful Visitor Centre must be accessible to large volumes of tourists at the point in their vacation when they are beginning their exploration of Kelowna, and for most, this begins in downtown Kelowna along the waterfront... This is why 78% of Visitor Centres in comparable North American destinations are now located in their main tourist district and/or downtown core where they can be accessed by large volumes of tourists."
Tourism in the Central Okanagan is worth $1 billion to the local economy, according to Tourism Kelowna's website. Their economic impact data for 2016 showed that nearly two million yearly visitors to Kelowna contributed more than $1.25 billion locally, and the tourism industry generated $142 million in tax revenues, bolstering the hope that an even warmer welcome can encourage visitors to see more, stay longer and spend more money, and so increase the above figures exponentially.
Cameron widens the argument to the overall health of the city advocating "tourism is one of the Central Okanagan’s leading industries, providing jobs for residents, spending that strengthens our economy and taxation that funds programs and contributes to our quality of life".
With more than 440,000 estimated people using the boardwalk in front of the proposed visitor centre – that’s over 1,200 people per day on average – the argument for the Visitor Centre relocation on the waterfront is persuasive.
Some People Continue to have Issues with the New Location
Anyone who has checked out the local forums and letters to the editors in the papers over the last couple of years (Castanet and Kelowna Daily Courier mainly) would have learned of the ad hoc group who have expressed their concerns about the new centre throughout the entire process. While on board with the city's move towards beautifying the foot of the Queensway (a cornerstone of Tourism Kelowna's case as well) they feel the new building is at odds with that goal, and they would only like to see green space on the waterfront/boardwalk.
Their concerns stem from a number of areas, one of them Kelowna knows particularly well – parking. They see this problem as two-fold. First off, they feel the relocation will diminish parking downtown even further (we covered this issue extensively in a recent article, Does Downtown Kelowna Have a Parking Problem?), and secondly, there is no space for RV's to park. The new centre has only 8 parking spots proposed around it, and no room for any RV’s or large vehicles.
As for the RV issue, Tourism Kelowna cites their own statistics at their current establishment – 240 RV’s stopped by in the spots available to them at the Harvey location during the tourist high season in 2016. That works out to roughly just 2 a day.
Tourism Kelowna has been forthcoming about the new centre’s objective and purpose, and that is to go after all the foot traffic along the waterfront walkway. Not cars. Not RV’s, which as they understand it are being parked in City Park before tourists explore downtown on foot.
Another major concern for this group is that the connection between Tourism Kelowna and city hall represents a conflict of interest. Two city councillors and the mayor were once on the Tourism Kelowna board, and one councillor currently sits as a member on the Board of Directors. Just to clarify, Tourism Kelowna is not run by the city, but is a non-profit society governed by tourism industry stakeholders who are in turn represented by their elected board. The stakeholders are those businesses who have purchased marketing packages from Tourism Kelowna.
The mayor stated during the late January 2017 public hearing that they had done their due diligence and were not deemed to be in conflict. Current sitting Tourism Kelowna board member Councillor Gail Givens also said during the same hearing, "I have zero pecuniary interest in Tourism Kelowna. None of my family are employed in tourism businesses, I don't own any tourism related businesses. I serve on the Tourism Kelowna board as a non-voting, council-appointed liaison member. I am there at the will of council" local news website, Castanet reported. At the end of the hearing, councillors decided to move forward with the plans by the aforementioned vote of 7-1.
Make of that what you will, but more concrete evidence certainly would be needed to justify a conflict of interest argument. A connection between stakeholders and city sitting politicians would be what this argument of self-enrichment would need for those assertions to hold.
It has been widely debated in the Castanet forums that a lack of transparency is a huge issue, and while it's certainly dishonest to stretch that to a conflict of interest, it has raised a point. The lease agreement that the city made with Tourism Kelowna was released for public viewing just 12 days prior to the final vote on the building’s approval back in late January – not enough time, they argued, to review the entirety of the documents. More time possibly would have equated to more public dissension – that’s the logic there.
Certainly more transparency would garner more good faith in the community and support for their plans, and dissuade any speculation of ill doing.
What You Need to Know About The New Tourism Centre
- Cost: $2.8 million. Tourism Kelowna is responsible for raising or borrowing all the funds required to build the project.
- The City of Kelowna is not contributing funds to construct the building.
- It has recently received a $500,000 grant from the provincial government.
- City of Kelowna retains ownership of the land and is supporting Tourism Kelowna through a 29 year lease (priced at $50 for the term), contingent on successful rezoning.
- Its design will create a concept that attracts people and communicates Kelowna’s sense of place and heritage.
- It will be designed for pedestrians and not vehicular traffic.
- Features include: interactive and storyboard displays to educate visitors about Kelowna’s heritage, the scope of attractions and encourage discovery of the destination, personal trip counselling services, sales area supporting local Kelowna businesses and cultural community including souvenirs, branded merchandise, local artisan products, and ticket sales for entertainment, attractions, tours, and cultural events.
- Sits on 293 metres quarried (3150 square feet) with a total building height of 7.3 m (24 ft).
- The building will also include five gender-neutral bathrooms.
- A development permit was issued by the city in early November, and Tourism Kelowna has a mortgage secured for the project.
In conclusion we feel that the Kelowna Tourism Visitor Centre's placement on the waterfront is a strong way to promote the city's assets in an experiential and tangible way – take in the dry warm sunshine, marvel at the lake to mountaintop views, listen to some awesome buskers while slurping a locally made sorbet, perhaps shop the satellite farmers market, taste wine and local treats, check out local artist's work – more than any official Kelowna Tourism brochure could. Putting a city this attractive front and centre to visitors should open up the "stakeholders" of tourism to the whole city and all its constituent businesses.