In recent years, the name Westbank First Nation has been synonymous with economic development.
Big box stores, strip malls, restaurants and banks have given locals fewer reasons to travel east.
The band’s most recent development, Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre, will only reinforce this trend.
And thanks to more services, a unique restaurant, a state-of-the-art movie theatre and a convenient location, WFN may be doing more than just keeping locals west of the bridge.
They may be attracting their Kelowna neighbours.
Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre will be up and running by June 1.
On that date, Okanagan residents will be introduced to a brand new eight screen movie theatre, Sammy J’s restaurant and several other, more commonly known, businesses.
It’s about a five minute drive from Kelowna’s downtown to WFN’s new Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre. It takes about twice as long to get to the Orchard Plaza Cineplex and nearly three times longer to arrive at McCurdy Road’s Grand 10 Cinemas.
It would take nearly no time at all to visit the Paramount Theatre in the heart of Kelowna’s downtown; however, with only three screens, one might have a tough time finding a movie that appeals.
WFN Chief Robert Louie wasn’t hesitant in confirming that he is aware of the Kelowna customer base.
When asked whether or not there is a hope to draw the downtown Kelowna crowd, given the location of Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre, Louie said, “Yes, that’s where a lot of the marketing has gone.
“Many of the tenants going in there have expanded their market—they think it’s an added feature.”
Dolores Ellingboe is the chair of WFN’s Economic Development Commission. She said that luring Kelowna residents wasn’t the pure motivation in the development of Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre.
“I don’t think we’re trying to pull customers away, I think we’re just providing different opportunities based on residents’ (locations) and giving them options,” said Ellingboe.
“I think it’s always nice to have centralized options available to all residents . . . (It) certainly is more accessible to a wider variety of residents both in Kelowna and on the Westside.
“I don’t want it to seem like we’re trying to draw away from the downtown core, it’s just that (Kelowna’s downtown is) limited in some ways to provide some of these services. If we have the land base to accommodate those services, I think it’s a nice harmony.”
Churchill International Property Corporation is WFN’s partner on the Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre Project.
Brad Wise, president of the corporation, said that, when considering the project, WFN’s experience was as equally as appealing as the location of the site itself.
“It was really the depth of experience and foresight that WFN has on doing what they can with the lands they have,” said Wise.
“(And) there’s no question that the location of the Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre is an exceptional site: Its access to the highway, its staggering views of Okanagan Lake and really the desire of high quality national tenants to want to be on that location.”
Wise said that “pulling” Kelowna residents to the new development didn’t accurately describe their motivation; rather, he suggested that Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre will offer certain services that Kelowna’s downtown may not be able to house.
He added that it is the shopping centre’s goal to provide Kelowna residents with “a viable alternative and a reason to come across the bridge.”
Wise said that WFN has been an “exceptional partner” and wouldn’t hesitate to do business with the band in the future.
And his corporation isn’t the only one with that opinion.
Bill Kennedy, vice president of Anthem Properties Group Ltd., has worked with the WFN on several projects including the Snyatan Shopping Centre, Governor’s Landing and Governor’s Market.
Snyatan Shopping Centre celebrated its grand opening in November, 2011. Kennedy said that since then, business has been good.
“We’re very pleased with the tenants and we’re very pleased with the level of activity by customers,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy said that there is always a hope that Kelowna shoppers will come over to West Kelowna; however, he is equally concerned with keeping West Kelowna shoppers in their own community.
“I think that there’s a large customer base on the Westside who, for a long (time), have probably felt that they had to go to Kelowna to do major shopping. I think a big element now is that those people don’t have to go to Kelowna; they have a world of opportunities to shop in Westbank.”
Kennedy added that some customers from Penticton and Peachland have found that they can find what they need without having to add extra kilometres onto their trip by going all the way to Kelowna.
He said that Anthem Properties’ relationship with WFN has been nothing but positive.
“I’m not saying this lightly, WFN has been a great partner.
“I think that sometimes people are confused or they see great mystery in these band lands, but we have a very good relationship with those guys. They’ve done a lot right on their lands; I think that’s been a benefit for that area.”
The Westbank and District Chamber of Commerce agrees that WFN’s economic development has benefited the community.
“Development, if it’s done in a good way, is a good thing,” said Michael Humberstone, treasurer of the Westbank and District Chamber of Commerce.
“I think anything that can keep people in the community is going to help that community.”
Humberstone said he anticipates that Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre will bring in customers from both Kelowna and West Kelowna.
“It’s important for every business everywhere to bring customers from all over, which increases their business profits.”
Humberstone said that he has noticed the increasing development affecting even his own family’s shopping trends.
“Even with my wife, she does more shopping here than she did six years ago—it’s continuing to improve.”
Even the Downtown Kelowna Association is supportive of the development.
Peggy Athans is the executive director of the DKA. When asked whether the DKA was concerned that Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre might take away potential downtown customers, Athans said, “Not, not at all.”
“Westbank is growing and that’s a positive for them. We’re a completely different sense of place. We’re not a strip mall; we’re not an Orchard Park. You can’t recreate downtown Kelowna anywhere else but here—it’s a completely different product.”
Whether WFN’s development is a barrier that keeps Westside residents on their side of the lake or a lure that tempts Kelowna consumers to travel west for their shopping and entertainment needs, might not matter.
But the fact that the band is determined to continue producing appealing developments to further strengthen its economy, does.
Ellingboe said that Okanagan Lake Shopping Centre “further opens the doors of opportunity for those wishing to do business on WFN lands.”
“WFN is always looking at creating a diverse economy; I think once we (open) this particular centre, it might kick off other opportunities.
“Our objectives, short and long term, are to create an economy that can withstand the test of time.”