Vernon Mayor Rob Sawatzky discusses economic development and functions of the regional district at the annual Mayor and Planners Breakfast Thursday morning at the Village Green Hotel.

Vernon Mayor Rob Sawatzky discusses economic development and functions of the regional district at the annual Mayor and Planners Breakfast Thursday morning at the Village Green Hotel.

Breaky serves up economic insight

Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce hosts annual Mayor and Planners Breakfast Thursday at Village Green Hotel.

A cup of coffee, scrambled eggs, hashbowns, a couple slices of bacon and a side of regional economic forecasting.

That is what awaited a full house at the Village Green Hotel Thursday morning at the annual Mayor and Planners Breakfast, hosted by the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce.

Anthony Kitell, regional growth co-ordinator for the Regional District of the North Okanagan, was the first of four guest speakers. He opened the show with a talk on the early implementation of the regional growth strategy.

Patrick Nicol, chairperson of the RDNO board, championed the cost-saving measures and economies of scale associated with regional governance, and dismissed the notion that having both regional and municipal levels of government doesn’t duplicate services.

“There are things that can only be done using the whole 81,000 (district population),” he said. “81,000 with the costs spread over it, makes it more efficient.”

With a noted lack of industrial land in the region, Vernon Mayor Rob  Sawatzky said the city needs to make itself attractive to potential investors by offering amenities.

“I think we recognize what attraction we have here in Vernon,” said  Sawatzky. “We don’t have vast industrial land, we don’t have a cheap labour base, we don’t have a primary industry. We have to sell ourselves as an attractive place for people who have the ability to choose where they live.

“When you talk to economic development officers, and you talk to realtors, they’ll tell you the first thing that people ask when they come into our community is not what our property tax is. They ask ‘What kind of amenities do you have?’

Both  Sawatzky and Nicol touched on the proposed track and field complex at Okanagan College as an example of something that can help the region grow.  Sawatzky admitted it could be a challenge to get the entire community on board when it goes to a public referendum, for which a date has to be determined.

“We have seniors who are on a fixed income, and they let us know they don’t want to pay higher taxes,” said  Sawatzky. “On the other hand, if we do not provide amenities, we cannot have the kind of economy we want.”

The mayor also suggested one way to reduce taxes for the city would be to shrink its boundaries and focus more on higher-density growth.

“If you wanted to keep taxes down and provide a really efficient administration…you would set the borders at Fulton school and Butcher Boys,” he said.

“Within that area would be your city because supplying services and maintaining services to all those outlying communities is incredibly expensive.”

Sawatzky also gave an update on the status of the $80,000 external core services review for the city’s operations, which was part of his election platform.

“We’re going to wait until our new CAO (Will Pearce) has had a couple months to settle in before we do that,” said  Sawatzky, noting Pearce is schedule to begin his new role June 4. “We want it to be an orderly, thoughtful process.”

Last up was Kevin Poole, Vernon’s economic development officer, who highlighted the major projects of 2011 and hinted at what my lie ahead.

Building permit values for last year totalled $123 million, driven largely by institutional and commercial development. So far in 2012, permit values sit just over $5.5 million.

“In 2011, we rebounded quite well,” said Poole. “Activity this year has been a little slower. We’re not getting the same kind of commercial (development), but we are getting a lot of interest.”

Poole listed current, or recently completed projects, that have helped spark the local economy: the new Vernon secondary school ($24 million building permit), Okanagan Regional Library ($10.6 million), Nixon Wenger building, 60-room expansion of the Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield Inn on Anderson Way, B.C. Transit facility on 25th Avenue, Sterling Medical office building near the corner of 25th Avenue and 32nd Street, 80,000 square-foot Kal Tire building on Kalamalka Lake Road, as well as the Polson Technology Centre, just down from Kal Tire on Polson Drive.

“I don’t know if people realize how big this is,” said Poole, of the Kal Tire project. “It is a substantial building.”

Poole also discussed the success of the business expansion and retention program, a pilot project originally started in Vernon. By partnering with the Central and South Okanagan regional districts, they conducted more than 500 interviews with businesses to gain their insight.

“The program that we piloted here in Vernon is now being rolled out to 65 communities across the province,” he said. “It’s kudos to the city for really leading the charge.”