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Meet the Mayors: Kelowna

From beaches and peaches to the Interior's economic powerhouse
Mayor Basran 2018_MHP3595-2

How hot is too hot?

It's a fair question when you consider the extreme growth B.C. Interior's largest urban area has enjoyed in recent years. But Kelowna city planners are adamant: while fast-paced growth represents challenges, it also holds the promise of opportunity.

Our three-part "Meet the Mayors" series concludes with Kelowna’s Colin Basran.

The Price is Right: Mayor Basran, Kelowna's growth is really unparalleled compared to other Interior cities and for that matter, to most urban areas across Canada.  Besides a nice climate, beaches, and peaches, what else is going right for Kelowna?

Basran: Oh gosh, where do I start? Since this is a business-focused entity, I would say that small business continues to be the heart of our community. And we as a local government try to foster an environment where small business can thrive.

We are very proud of some of the titles we have been given over the past couple of years, including top place for entrepreneurs in Canada by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. We've also been named as one of the most affordable places to do business in western North America.

So I think the fact that we have a thriving economy and business climate is one of the things going right.

We also continue to see increases in average household income, we've made great strides to attract young business professionals to our community and had one of the 30 to 34 year old demographic in the last census. So just a lot of good news related to Kelowna economy and job market.

TPIR: It certainly sounds like heady days in Kelowna, but surely you have your challenges as well?

Basran: I think the top priority for residents, a top concern expressed during the recent municipal election campaign related to social issues. The continued growth of homelessness and the issues that come with what is a very complex situation.

To that end, we have developed a homeless plan that we call "the journey home" which has been recognized by both the provincial and federal governments as a model for other municipalities to follow.

However, getting back to your question, a lot of people feel unsafe in some parts of our community including downtown. So right now, we are working very hard to get people housed under a housing first model so people can get off the streets and hopefully turn their lives around.

So not unlike many urban areas, homelessness, and public safety are major concerns in Kelowna.

TPIR: Given those concerns, what’s your city's biggest challenge going into 2019?

Basran: As one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the country, we expect anywhere between 40,000 to 50,000 new residents in the next 20 years. Our biggest challenge is where do we fit all these people? Where do we find homes that are affordable? What also comes with that are transportation and mobility challenges. In other words, strong urban planning is our biggest challenge.

We have a number of initiatives underway to deal with those concerns, which I suppose are good problems to have.

TPIR: On that issue of urban planning, how do you respond to suggestions that Kelowna is suffering from poor planning in the past? A common criticism as you know is that Kelowna is one giant strip mall. 

Basran:  Well, things change. I believe that it wasn't necessarily a lack of planning but rather an example of how municipalities grew in the '60s, '70s and '80s.

Best practices have changed and those are no longer the ways to be growing municipalities. I can't really blame anyone for the situation that we have now because I believe that they were well-intentioned and that previous planners were following the best practices of the day.

Things evolve. I think that Kelowna is no different in that there are better ways now to develop our communities. We now recognize that we need to limit urban sprawl, and that will also serve our taxpayers better in the future, because urban sprawl is far more costly than urban in-fill development.

TPIR: Amid the strong growth, how is Kelowna's business climate?

Basran: As I mentioned, we've received several accolades in terms of being open for business and being responsive to the needs of our business community.

Just a couple of months ago, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said Kelowna was the top place in British Columbia for someone to start a business. They conducted a "secret shopper" experiment in a number of communities, and found Kelowna was the best place to set up shop. These are things we can't take for granted.

One of the things helping to drive business in our community is the continued growth of our international airport. Kelowna is now the 10th-busiest airport in the country. We also have aviation-related businesses like KF Aerospace, which is the city's largest private sector employer.

Also, when you factor in Okanagan College and UBCO, and the programs they are tailoring to our community needs, [these will] will help provide small and mid-size companies with the skilled labour they need. Right now, a shortage of skilled labour is holding Kelowna back, particularly in tech.

Kelowna is also feeling the impact of government policy. Particularly the provincial government's speculation tax. As a result of that tax, there have been significant development projects put on hold. That means there are some people in our community that could be working, but aren't. I should also point out, however, that both the provincial and federal governments have been helpful when it comes to dealing with social concerns I mentioned.

TPIR:  Mayor Basran, do you have a leadership philosophy?

Basran: Interesting question. Firstly, I always encourage my council that we are a team and we will be viewed as being successful by what we accomplish together. So we are best to work together and not try individually to take credit for different things.

I also remind my council that leadership requires making tough decisions in the face of adversity, and we are going to be facing that when it comes to matters such as homelessness. It's about making decisions for the community as a whole – which means sometimes, you're not going to make everybody happy.

I firmly believe that we are a team and need to surround ourselves with the best people possible and to make evidence-based decisions.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions on twitter: @kammornanchor

Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.