City says visitor centre won’t cost taxpayers millions

Days after council approves visitor centre project, city says it's not on the hook for millions

The parking lot that will eventually become home to a visitor centre in downtown Kelowna.

Kelowna city hall says despite claims to the contrary by some opposed to construction of a new visitors’ centre on the downtown waterfront, taxpayers will not be paying millions of dollars to help fund the project, approved this week by the City of Kelowna.

At a lengthy public hearing on Tuesday to rezone the city owned parking lot where the new 3,300-square-foot building is planned, one man presented a list of costs totalling more than $13 million.

That figure, however, was left unchallenged by members of council, who were there to hear the public, not debate what presenters brought up. In a 7-1 vote, council approved the rezoning.

Earlier in the meeting, Tourism Kelowna officials said the building will cost $2.8 million for the group to construct it.

Tourism Kelowna will build and operate the visitors’ centre and, with the exception of providing the site with water and sewer service, will pay for any other site requirements including utility installations.

The cost of incorporating the rest of the site into the new-look Kerry Park will be borne by the city, but that would be regardless of the visitor centre going ahead or not, says the city.

Opponents of the visitor centre plan repeatedly described the site as the last piece of waterfront park in the city despite the fact it has never been a park. It was the landing spot of the old Okanagan Lake ferry that preceded the Okanagan Lake Floating Bridge and was bought by the city in 2003 for $192,000 with the thought that one day it would become part of Kerry Park. The opponents feel the site is the wrong location for a new visitor’s centre.

But proponents of the centre say the location is perfect given that is where the people are, especially tourists.

On Thursday, Terry Barton, urban planning manager for the city, said he thought the reason the $13 million figure was not challenged was because it was so outlandish.

“It’s really quite a simple deal,” said Barton. “It’s just like any other one we have with other groups.”

He gave examples of the Okanagan Gymnastics Club, the local curling club and soccer association, all of whom have buildings on city land that they paid for and maintain on land leased from the city.

The lease agreement with Tourism Kelowna for the new visitors’ centre says the city has committed to pay $11,000 to bring water and sewer service to the site. That will be done when road work on Queensway occurs as part of the development of a planned new hotel at Queensway and Mill Street, beside the Queensway jetty. As part of the hotel plan, Mill Street will be closed.

Kerry Park will be expanded and improved and will include the land that the visitors’ centre will be built on.

The figures presented at the public hearing included what the presenter said he believed is the value of the Queensway jetty—$7 million—plus what he predicted would be the increase in value next year, another $2 million.

But Barton said the city does not regularly do land evaluations when entering into a lease agreement such as the one it has with Tourism Kelowna so the city does not have a value for the property.

Even if it did, he said, it would not be as much as a typical parcel of that size downtown as the city would not allow typical downtown development on the site.