Vernon’s mayor is on the defensive over the city’s response to challenging economic conditions.
Incumbent Wayne Lippert was challenged by mayoralty hopefuls Patrick Davies and Rob Sawatzky over business and job growth during the first all-candidates forum at the Schubert Centre Thursday.
“We have Kal Tire and Tolko but we need more people so they can come here and buy homes and our kids can stay here,” said Davies, who runs a marine business.
Davies pointed out that Vernon has slipped from first to seventh spot in terms of the best places to conduct business in B.C.
“This is not something we should be proud of. This is something we need to change,” he said.
Sawatzky, a retired physician, blamed a lack of economic development on Vernon’s sometimes challenging relationship with local jurisdictions.
“There’s such a dysfunctional breakdown with the neighbours we need,” he said referring to water resources and accessing land for industrial uses.
“With new people in the process, we can move forward with our neighbours.”
Lippert, who is seeking a third term, defended the city’s actions, saying an economic development strategy is in place, including financial measures to attract investors.
“We’ve reduced development cost charges and we’re working on off-site (servicing) costs.”
He added that Vernon has an agreement with all other local communities to be the lead contact when investors look at the region.
“Any industry that calls Vernon, we have the (jurisdictions’) official community plans and we can direct them to the right places.”
The forum was hosted by the Sustainable Environment Network Society and many of the questions revolved around sustainable communities. One topic of discussion was transit and alternate transportation.
“Vernon is a leader. Ridership is up significantly,” said Lippert.
As an example, he pointed to the transit run between Vernon and the university in Kelowna.
“The two buses are over-capacity and we’re working on a third one,” he said.
However, Davies says transit service needs to meet the needs of residents.
“People aren’t using transit because they’re not familiar with it and it’s not running into areas they want,” said Davies.
Sawatzky is also calling for more investment in transit but he wants new methods pursued.
“Our buses that go around town are large buses with one driver and one passenger,” he said, adding that there may be a need to look at smaller vehicles.
Another question focused on possibly limiting urbanization to protect ecosystems.
“We need to follow the official community plan,” said Sawatzky.
“It was developed after hours of consultation. All of those issues are in there.”
Lippert says the city has planning documents to protect the environment, and he wants to see development downtown instead of in outlying areas.
Davies told the crowd of almost 200 that there must be a balance between economic and environmental interests.
“We need to have planned, sustainable change. Whatever we do, we need a plan,” he said.