LIVING

OKANAGAN RUSH

KELOWNA FACES UP TO RAPID GROWTH

JOHN HOWSE August 24 1992
LIVING

OKANAGAN RUSH

KELOWNA FACES UP TO RAPID GROWTH

JOHN HOWSE August 24 1992

OKANAGAN RUSH

KELOWNA FACES UP TO RAPID GROWTH

Curious tourists watch a pair of butterflies called Scarlet Mormons mate on a tall green bamboo shoot in a tropical rain forest enclosed in a glass conser-

vatory. A flight of another exotic species creates layers of bright pinks and reds over a bowl of sliced oranges and bananas. The spectators are among a stream of visitors off the Okanagan Valley’s traffic-clogged Highway 97 who pay $5 apiece to enter Butterfly World, one of the newest tourist attractions in booming Kelowna, the hot spot of south-central British Columbia. Butterfly World’s owners, ex-forester Ray Jessee and his wife, Judy, a former schoolteacher, are part of an entrepreneurial wave that is changing the once-quiet retirement enclave beside 80-mile-long Okanagan Lake into a growth centre. “I tell people that if they are just thinking of coming here, there are no jobs,” said Gerry Frederick, manager of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce.“But if they are coming to develop an idea, there is lots of work. You have to make your own.”

Outside of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland area around Vancouver, Kelowna is among the fast-growing province’s most quickly expanding communities. Its population soared by 24 per cent in five years to 75,950 in the 1991 national census. Apart from the

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increased number of residents, and an expanding invasion of summer tourists, the picturesque centre of the Okanagan’s orchard country is packed with structural signs of new growth and construction that itself contributes to the area’s explosive expansion.

A new connector highway shortens the drive between Vancouver and Kelowna, its sandy beaches, a lake busy with boats, more than 25 nearby golf courses, and its proudest statistic—2,000 hours of sunshine a year. Kelowna is spreading with housing construction, much of it for pensioners. An influx of young families has prompted authorities to open a new elementary school and reopen a junior high school. Okanagan University College, offering degreelevel courses since last year, has launched a $ 100-million expansion. Scheduled to open in October is the 400-room, $ 120-million Grand Okanagan Resort, with lakeside convention room for 1,200 people. “It puts us on the convention circuit,” said the chamber’s Frederick, 59, a former oil marketing manager who moved to Kelowna from Denver. “We already have the Shriners for 1993.”

More sombrely, the B.C. Cancer Agency plans to open a $23-million clinic with four radiation therapy units in 1996. “The area’s population is both growing and aging,” ex-

plained Fran Caruth, the agency’s planning and development director. “The problems of cancer increase with an older population.” That is only one sign of the influence on Kelowna of retired people, many of whom live in walled, adultonly communities. Government statistics show that 42 cents out of every dollar of basic personal income in Kelowna is pension money.

That influence feeds a conflict of interests between retired people and younger families. “This is a community at war with itself,” says Walter Shawlee, research director of Northem Airborne Technology, a local aircraft electronics manufacturer with 30 employees. “The city is undecided whether it wants to be a normal mixed commu-

nity or a retirement centre. Too many selfcentred citizens here are out of the loop. They don’t work. They go elsewhere for much of the year. The jobs here for the young are generally limited to turning down beds and filling glasses with water.”

Controversy centres as well on the inflation of shelter costs with the influx of pensioners and others from as far away as Eastern Canada, along with tourists and weekenders attracted from Alberta and the B.C. coast by the Okanagan’s kind climate. Shawlee, for one, says that his four-member family’s home, purchased in 1986 for $67,500, now is valued at $190,000. “Housing,” he says, “is moving out of range for the people who actually work here.”

The property boom is also invading the Okanagan’s fruit orchards and vineyards. The Jessees financed Butterfly World’s 5,300square-foot conservatory, its tropical plants and 168 imported species of butterflies largely from the proceeds of subdividing their 18.5acre Okanagan vineyard for real estate development—“an agonizing decision,” Judy Jessee recalls. But it “boiled down to dollars,” and providing opportunities for her three children. That decision, and others like it, coincide with improvements in the quality and reputation of local wines, which attract more visitors to winery tours, tasting sessions and Okanagan wine festivals.

The increasing numbers of visitors and residents generate such big-city problems as traffic jams, a need for food banks and hostels, and rowdies whose riotous behavior has forced the cancellation of Kelowna’s annual regatta. That is a high price to pay for prosperity, and one that a growing number of Kelownans are determined will be only a temporary tax on the enjoyment of the good life in the Okanagan.

JOHN HOWSE