Tourism Kelowna unveils plans for $3.5 million visitor information centre on water-front

Moving the visitor information centre to where tourists are could be a boon to local business, says Kelowna tourism group

If all goes according to Tourism Kelowna’s plans, there could be a new addition to the downtown waterfront by next year.

Tourism Kelowna representatives unveiled plans Thursday for a $3.5 million visitor information centre located on the Queensway jetty, which currently is used as a city parking lot. The city would retain ownership of the land, entering a lease agreement with the tourism organization, should rezoning be approved.

“Visitor centres are the front doors to the community,” said Tourism Kelowna CEO, Nancy Cameron, when she presented the plan.

She said the current Visitor Information Centre just isn’t up to snuff, when it comes to welcoming tourists. The fact is, she said, people don’t travel the way they did in the early ‘80s when the centre took up residence on Highway 97.

They don’t roll into the city, make a quick stop at the information booth and choose their accommodation and activities from there. Most make their plans from the comfort of their couch, using the myriad of online tools available.

That change in travelling is being shown through the organization’s internal numbers.

In 2005 there were somewhere in the area of 50,000 visitors a year to the centre. Last year, there were 20,000 and the expectation is that the numbers will continue to dwindle.

“We know that highway located centres across North America are experience rapid declines due to technology and changing usage,” Cameron said.

“We are losing our customers because of this shift…The highway location is the wrong location. Like a hotdog vendor, we have to go to where our customers are.”

And their customers are downtown.

It’s the way tourism centres operate in Portland, Oregon, Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary.

“Think of the Visitor Centre in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. It gets 350,000 visitors every year and we have 20,000 and declining,” she said.

In contrast, the boardwalk area Tourism Kelowna would like to move to gets somewhere in the area of 440,000 passersby a year.

If those people could be directed to tourism locations, the new location could be a boon to the local economy.

“North America-wide Visitor Information centre research shows that walk-ins in primary tourist areas are growing,” she said. “They are still relevant.”

But it’s all about the location.

There will be a lot of community consultation before anything is decided upon. Rezoning applications will likely be before city council sometime in the next few weeks.

And, as the process plays out, questions about whether the centre is in line with what’s required with the Simpson covenant may be raised.

Tourism Kelowna chair Daniel Bibby doesn’t foresee a problem, noting that it keeps with the demands of that document.

Issues about fundraising are also not likely to raise concerns.

“Tourism Kelowna is responsible for raising or borrowing the entire $3.5 million to build the new visitor centre. We are excited to be able to add another beautiful public building to downtown for use by visitors and residents. It will complement the new marina, yacht club, parks and other downtown improvements,” said Bibby.

The board of directors for the organization have approved borrowing of $2.5 million, and they will fundraise for the last

$1 million. The new visitor centre will have a 3,000 square foot footprint at ground level with a partial second floor of 2,000-square-feet. Through extensive use of glass in its construction and increased open public space around the building, views will be respected.

The building will be set back 50 feet from the waterfront on each side of the building. This will be a new public ‘plaza-like’ space and allows for the continuation of the waterfront walkway between Stuart Park and Kerry Park.

“The location was Kelowna’s original point of welcome as an historic ferry landing site and it will once again be used to welcome visitors said Bibby.

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