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Okanagan Falls' downtrodden downtown preps for comeback, Part II

Yesterday we began our look into Okanagan Falls, a community surrounded by beauty but beset by a decaying town centre and a dead grocery store. And we found the beginnings of change.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

Today we hit you with hopeful news on the region's most infamous industrial site and the latest on a long-dormant downtown gas station.

But we begin with Jillian Johnston and Kris Lee.

Johnston and Lee, and their daughter Sassa, live in a townhouse just a block off the main drag. And they see Okanagan Falls at a crossroads.

<who>Photo Credit: Jillian Johnston and Kris Lee</who> Jillian Johnston and Sassa and Kris Lee

Both are employed with School District 67 and both are strongly connected to their community. Though they relocated to Okanagan Falls just three years ago from Penticton, she's already involved in the local Parks and Rec commission and he regularly attends "town halls" with Ron Obirek, the director of local governing body RDOS Area D.

Johnston in particular thinks there's more to the town than meets the eye. She talks about the library they visit "every single weekend," the child-centric amenities at the school and elsewhere, and the programs and facilities aimed at seniors.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

But like yesterday's interviewees, they feel the community needs a refreshed system of government.

"It's been left decrepit because of a lack of funds," said Lee, "and that comes from not incorporating 25 or 30 years ago. They were getting ready to hold a plebiscite and there was a vocalization against it so they pulled the plug."

"Right now, Area D contributes more to the RDOS budget than Penticton. So think about that. We're 5,000 people here."

<who>Photo Credit: Jillian Johnston and Kris Lee</who> Sassa and Kris Lee and Jillian Johnston

Together, the couple looks forward to a day when grant money could be turned into sidewalks, where tax discounts might convince owners to clean up storefronts, where bylaw officers might be hired to "keep things clean," and where affordable high-density housing might begin to displace old homes on large properties.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

"We want to be able to help make change here," said Johnston.

That sentiment was echoed by the director of RDOS Area D and the fellow who runs the town halls referenced above, Ron Obirek.

Obirek only half-jokingly calls Okanagan Falls a "donut" -- essentially lots of good stuff with a hole in the middle. And he's a big proponent of incorporation.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Ron Obirek talks Okanagan Falls

"We're in a blind spot in Okanagan Falls," he said. "For 54 years the local government act was amended to create the regional district system. That system of governance is intended for rural communities, but it's not designed for urban or suburban areas."

Obirek points to already incorporated small communities like Keremeos, with a population of 1,500, saying there's nearly triple that in Area D.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

"So if you go to Keremeos, you have a mayor and a council of four, and they do a great job making decisions at the local level. They know the community and they pay taxes there. But in Okanagan Falls, the people who live here don't get heard."

"Where we see this most is in our town centre. It manifests with the closure of our IGA, with buildings that catch fire and don't get remedied. So people who drive though see those negatives and then judge the entire community by them."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

According to Obirek, OK Falls would do well to look toward towns like Clearwater, BC, which incorporated in 2007 and in the next ten years secured $17.4 million in government grants.

He is aware, however, that incorporation involves referendums and inevitably higher taxes. It's been attempted in the past in Okanagan Falls, and failed.

But what really gets Obirek pumped these days is the breaking news in the Weyerhaeuser Mill saga.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> A portion of the old Weyerhaeuser mill site

When timber giant Weyerhaeuser closed its Okanagan Falls mill in 2007, the local economy was hammered. Just five minutes from the downtown core, the gargantuan 114-acre site has since been the subject of great speculation.

It was on the verge of becoming a cannabis production plant earlier this year when construction was stopped. And it was sold again.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

But this time, there looks to be real hope. PentictonNow spoke directly with the new owner, Garry Peters, Friday afternoon.

Peters, whose family has substantial roots in the South Okanagan, said his "Avery Development" is going to rezone the land into a light industrial site, subdivide, install infrastructure, and bring in businesses. He's currently planning on 23 individual lots ranging from 1.1 hectares to 6.5 hectares in size, and he sounds sincerely enthusiastic over what the projected outcome will mean for the community.

<who>Photo Credit: Garry Peters</who> Garry and Victoria Peters, the new owners of the old Weyerhaeuser site

"What I've been hearing is how Okanagan Falls used to be when Weyerhaeuser was in operation, and the memories people have of a robust and very tightly knit town."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

"So we saw this as an opportunity to do some good, create some value, and bring people into this great community."

There are hurdles ahead, such as getting the okay on both the subdivision plan and the rezoning. According to Peters, it will be a minimum of a year and a half on the former.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> A portion of the old Weyerhaeuser site

More on Peters and his plans elsewhere today in PentictonNow.

Meanwhile over at the Centex gas station -- a place that closed after a 2016 blaze and has since contributed mightily to the war zone ambience of the main drag -- owner Harpreet Toor had more surprises.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

"We'll open the convenience store next week," he told PentictonNow last Tuesday. "It'll be a 24-hour store where we'll try to have everything the community needs."

Beyond basic groceries, bread, dairy, and more, the store will feature take-out hot food like samosas. What's more, Toor said prices will be reasonable. "Way cheaper than IGA," he promised. "100%."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Inside the soon to reopen Centex convenience store

Also debuting in the near future is the station's car wash (likely by the end of the month), a propane facility (Toor said he'll be the only full-service propane provider in town) and a "Sani Dump."

Operational gas pumps, however, will take a little longer. The latest delay, said Toor before showing us the apparent proof, is a product of recent vandalism he estimates will ultimately cost him $50,000 to remediate.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Vandalism at the Centex station

According to Toor, the past few years have been miserable.

"In 2016," he said, "we had the fire. The smoke damage was very bad and insurance wrote off the whole thing."

In 2018, a planned renovation that would have seen a second storey "where we could live and have our own 24-hour security" was apparently scuttled when local zoning was changed.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Inside the soon to reopen Centex convenience store

"I've spent a fortune on this place," said the clearly frustrated Toor. "Right from the beginning, we've had an average of one break-in a month."

"One officer told me, 'I know there are people stealing from you. But by the time we go to court, the judge will ask how we know if this is the right person?'"

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who> Inside the soon to reopen Centex convenience store

Toor's happy about the reopening and that the break-ins have recently ebbed. And he believes having employees on premises 24/7 will end the vandalism.

But he's says there's one thing that would solve many of the problems he's endured. Incorporation.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia</who>

More to come tomorrow in Part III.

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