With more and more young families forced to move or work elsewhere, the economy was front and centre for Vernon’s mayoralty candidates Tuesday.
More than 500 people came out to questions the five candidates, along with 13 of the 14 candidates for council, at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre forum.
“We have to be open for business and the perception is Vernon is hard to deal with and we need to change that,” said Akbal Mund.
“A lot of them have shut up shop because they can’t afford the extra costs here,” said the former franchise owner, using the high water costs charged to golf courses as one example.
Victor Cumming says opening the doors to new businesses is one of two things the city needs to be doing.
The first is: “Work with existing enterprises we do have.”
Cumming, an economist, says private/public and not for profit are all critical areas to support in Vernon’s economy going forward.
When it comes to growth, particularly downtown, Jamie Morrow says the sky is the limit.
“We need to go up, we need to go vertical,” said the recruiter for Okanagan College’s School of Business, who is all for mixed-use development.
Morrow would also like to look at improving transportation around town.
“I don’t know why we can’t have smaller buses.
“If we want to be greener and healthier then we have to do it.”
Creating work will be a challenge over the next four years, said Klaus Tribes, but he says it is Vernon’s job to address it.
“It starts at city hall, it starts with, ‘we are open for business,’” said the former councillor and downtown business owner.
“We will bend over backwards to give these guys a hand to relocate here.”
Creating an industrial land base is also key to the overall region’s economic growth, said Mary-Jo O’Keefe, an incumbent councillor who owns MJO Tours.
“In my time on council we’ve lost a lot of business coming to town because we didn’t have an industrial land base.”
But when it comes to business, Cumming says Vernon has in fact grown leaps and bounds.
He recalls serving on a committee in 1977 when the city never imagined it would need a bypass.
“Penticton said yes to a bypass, Kelowna and Vernon said it would never be needed,” said Cumming, who supports the idea.
“There’s a lot of business downtown,” said Tribes.
“When I hear people say: ‘I couldn’t find a spot to park, they were all full.’ I say: ‘What’s the problem?’”
Still, improvements could be made and Mund suggests that instead of providing free parking on Sundays, when the majority of businesses are closed, make Saturdays free.
“It will bring families downtown,” said Mund, suggesting making some of the parking lots downtown free.
O’Keefe agrees that attention to downtown is key.
“City cores across Canada, they’re almost the windows to a community,” said O’Keefe.
Another development suggestion is waterfront, which some residents are questioning why Vernon isn’t capitalizing on considering its proximity to not one, not two, but three lakes.
“We started purchasing property on Okanagan Lake whenever it became available,” recalled Tribes.
O’Keefe says that policy was ignored this year as properties came up, due to the structure changes in parks and recreation. But that doesn’t mean plans aren’t in place.
“We have actually developed a really good waterfront plan,” said O’Keefe, adding that the city needs to work with the Okanagan Indian Band to further develop plans.
In the meantime, properties can’t be stringed together until gaps are filled, said Tribes, adding that some properties are already owned by the city and rented out
“Unfortunately it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Tribes.
The issue of referendums was also brought up, which Morrow agrees with when it comes to important facilities and upgrades.
“We’re here for you, we’re not here for us.”
For councillor candidate responses see the article and photos on pages A12 and A13.