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Downtrodden downtown in spotlight, Okanagan Falls ready for comeback, Part III

In yesterday's Part II of our series exploring the troubled town centre of Okanagan Falls, we heralded potentially good news at the former Weyerhaeuser site and talked gas stations.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Dramatic Peach Cliff towers over the old Weyerhaeuser site

Today we get a bit more opulent and a bit more conscious of the contradictions that make the region so intriguing.

Our destination? Wine country.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Here, a mere five minutes up the road, the vineyards, the views and the architecture make the decay of downtown seem very far away indeed.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Yet we found the contrast between the two situations isn't lost on the ownership teams we happened to meet.

Our first stop was spectacular Noble Ridge Winery, where the view from the patio over the vineyards and on to Vaseux Lake in the distance is flat-out jaw-dropping.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Hopping from our car, we instantly ran into co-owner Jim D'Andrea, who, with wife Leslie, bought the hillside parcel in 2001. The couple developed it, added 20 additional acres of vines to the original 3.5, and these days live on it too.

D'Andrea admits it’s a "pretty great" setup.

But he's also keenly aware that the core of his community is suffering.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Jim D'Andrea

Indeed, D'Andrea is a already a member of the Okanagan Falls Community Association, the citizen's action group we introduced in Part I. And he has a vision of how that action should begin.

"There's not even a pub right now," D'Andrea said. "It's a bit alarming. So (OFCA spokesperson) Matt Taylor started asking whether people were interested in getting together and fixing this. It's a grassroots thing, and there are a number of us on the board.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> A section of Main Street in downtown Okanagan Falls

"Okanagan Falls has had a ton of studies in the past, and nothing seemed to go. So we said let's take from all those studies and get an action guide going. We're so far getting a lot of community feedback and buy-in."

According to D'Andrea, the plan is to start small but impactful.

"For a start, we're going to change the signs going into Okanagan Falls," he said. "We're going to reflect the heart of wine country. Then we'll get some banners and hopefully murals on Main Street. These are small things, but it's part of an overall strategy and we'll just tick off things as we go."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> It was harvest time at Noble Ridge

D'Andrea bemoans the passing of the town barber shop, which he frequented and calls a "great meeting place." But otherwise he's forward thinking.

"I know there are things going on in terms of people checking around for businesses. And that's what we want to do -- get people excited about coming here."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

And finally, when queried if he'd put real dollars into the revitalization efforts, he indicated he's ready.

"Yes. I'm already putting a lot of time into it, and I'm certainly willing to put some money in as well."

A couple minutes from Noble Ridge is the stylish Wild Goose Winery, the second-ever winery established in Okanagan Falls.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Here, owner Roland Kruger acknowledged the issues surrounding the downtown zone and, like D'Andrea, gave a thumbs-up to financial commitment.

"We want to support change moving forward," he said. "There's no doubt about that. So the answer is yes, we'd be very happy to contribute to building Okanagan Falls into a better community than it is already."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Roland Kruger

Kruger and his wife Karen, also a member of the Okanagan Falls Community Association and the first person to brief us on it, live in the neighbourhood of Bighorn Mountain Estates, overlooking the town and the incredible scenery around it.

"I've been here for 36, 37 years," said Kruger, "so I've seen a lot of changes. But I've also seen very few changes. That's OK Falls."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> The view from Bighorn Mountain Estates

Kruger said it'll take something like the OFCA, plenty of strong public support, and, like so many we met during our foray to the Falls, incorporation, to bring about true recovery.

And this time, he has reason to believe the concept might just prove successful.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

"I've lived through two (failed) incorporation votes throughout the years," he said. "But I think now we're seeing a generational change of ownership.

"A lot of senior people don’t want change. But with a lot of younger people buying in, they want to see changes, they want to see businesses here."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Meanwhile back down in the village, Shelby Hicks prepped for her next customer.

Just last month, Hicks, who lives in Oliver, threw aside the negative vibes surrounding the downtown core and opened a hair and beauty salon in the middle of it.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Shelby Hicks

It's called Colour Werks Salon and it sits in a comfortable space at the south edge of the Ralph's On Main Furniture building at 1016 Main. And it's a full-service place.

In most towns, that's not hugely newsworthy. But in OK Falls, with a burned out barber and the looming closure of the only other hairdressing storefront, it rates attention. She may not run a world-class winery, but Hicks' faith in the town and her buy-in is important.

Hicks seems enamored with her decision -- so enamored that she hopes one day to move her residence there as well. If she can find housing, which is currently at a premium.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

"Everybody's so friendly in OK Falls and they look out for each other," she said. "If you need something, they have your back. The guy next door keeps an eye on the shop at night."

Equally important, she saw a need.

"It's a growing community and I felt a hair and esthetics shop would do well. We handle it all -- massage, facials, manicures, pedicures, nails and men's hair too."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Hicks was especially thrilled to find a spot directly across the street from the still-under-renovation OK Falls Hotel.

"The hotel's a beacon of light in this community," she said. "Years ago I would help out there with music bingo. I know another girl who'll be working there, and she says it should be anytime."

Exactly when Hicks' prognostication comes to fruition remains to be seen. The OK Falls Hotel, with the only pub in town, one of few restaurants and of course lodging, has gone through an interesting time lately. More on that in tomorrow's jam-packed Part IV.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> The OK Falls Hotel

Later, while strolling the waterfront, we ran into yet another resident who'd recently moved into the community and is happy he did.

This was a recurring theme in our OK Falls journey. Initially, we half-expected to see swarms of Okanagan Fallers fleeing the place. But we found the opposite.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Our interviewee didn't want us to use his name or image. But he certainly had his opinions.

"We moved from Penticton two months ago," said our anonymous friend. "We came here for a quieter area and more affordable housing, and we liked the hominess of OK Falls. We love it here."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Our anonymous interviewee, from a distance

At the same time, he honed in on the same gripes as others. Namely, the lack of a grocery store, a dearth of restaurants, and a need "to get someone in here to fight for the town."

"We'd personally have no problem paying more taxes for an incorporated area and a mayor and council. We have to make it enticing for new businesses to come in. Give them a six-month tax break. Deals on rent. Whatever it takes."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

"I feel that OK Falls is the next big thing," he noted. "But the province needs to funnel some money down this way to revamp it, like they did for Penticton five years ago."

Stay tuned for tomorrow's busy final installment.

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