BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Opening it up

Vernon’s mayor learned Monday that you sometimes have to go with the flow

Vernon’s mayor learned Monday that you sometimes have to go with the flow.

Rob Sawatzky tried to take a firm hand during a public hearing on rezoning property next to Civic Arena although the full house wanted to talk about the city’s proposal to relocate the visitor information centre to that neighbourhood.

“We’re not here to discuss the process the tourism advisory committee pursued (in determining a location),” he told the first speaker who veered from the narrow focus of the session.

But after a few more speakers, it became evident that Sawatzky had accepted reality.

“I’ve kind of given up,” he said of sticking to a hearing strictly based on zoning.

And that was a logical move given that the city set the tone for the discussion even before the public hearing had started.

As residents filed into council chambers, they were handed a document entitled, FAQ about visitor services and the centralization of Vernon visitor centres. It explained the role of visitor centres, how the role is changing, centre  usage, the challenges with the current locations, why the new site is preferred and projected cost savings.

Not once in the document is there any mention of rezoning, which was supposed to be the sole intent of the public hearing.

Now the simple fact that such a document was produced demonstrates that city officials are more than aware of the concerns, if not downright opposition, about shutting down the existing tourism booths and shifting visitors’ traffic patterns.

They had to know Monday’s debate wouldn’t just be about shifting zoning from street-oriented commercial to public institutional.

“This is the only avenue people have to express their disbelief in this location,” said Coun. Bob Spiers, the only member of council to vote against the zoning bylaw.

And the discussion should go beyond just zoning as building renovations will cost $292,215, traffic on Highway 97 could be impacted and residents in that immediate neighbourhood have to adjust to the comings and goings of visitors.

While the city’s tourism advisory committee endorsed the new site, was there broad consultation with the tourism sector to see what impact moving the centre may have on them?  At least one tourism operator stated Monday that he had not been approached ahead of time.

But perhaps the biggest hit for transparency and due process came when it was revealed that there is a sign in the 39th Avenue building stating, “Coming soon, new home of the visitor centre.”

“How can you do that, when you don’t have the proposal approved?” resident Ken Cuffe asked council.

In relation to the sign, staff explained that council had already given its blessing to the location in November and the rezoning is purely procedural to ensure the proper land use.

That’s all true, but without rezoning, it’s been made abundantly clear that the tourism information centre would not go there. So, posting the sign before the public had its say and a final council vote was extremely premature.

Perception is everything in government, and many residents left Monday’s public hearing not feeling good about the experience.

“It’s already a done deal,” said one man. “We might as well just get up and go.”

And get up and go is exactly what they did.