Economic issues were the focus of debate at the Westbank and District Chamber of Commerce All Candidates Forum on Wednesday evening.
All 13 council candidates and both mayoral hopefuls were on hand to answer a selection of questions from various Chamber members and a couple questions posed by the audience.
One of the more unique questions directed at the mayoral candidates was whether or not they would be in favour of inviting a member of the Westbank First Nation band council to participate in the West Kelowna council meetings as a non-voting member.
Rosalind Neis said she would be willing to do that as long as WFN also invited a member of DWK council to their meetings as a non-voting member.
“I don’t think, as a community, we should necessarily be bowing over to every request, but we have to work together,” said Neis.
“After Nov. 19, my first phone call will be to Chief Robert Louie and his wife, inviting them to my home for dinner. We have to start communicating.”
Doug Findlater said he wouldn’t be open to the suggestion.
“I wouldn’t support inviting them in to be a non-voting member; we’re separate jurisdictions. The appropriate place for WFN to hold a seat is at the Regional Board table. They are currently a non-voting member at the Regional Board table as one of the stakeholders in the area,” said Findlater.
“They’ve written to the Regional District, indicating they’d like to be admitted as a voting member of the Regional District. I would support that as long as they are going to be a full player and a full contributor just like every other jurisdiction.”
A probing question, posed to the councillor candidates, was a three-in-one query, which divided candidates as seeing the business climate glass as half-full or half-empty.
They were asked: How would you qualify the current business climate? What would you consider as shortcomings? What are you planning to do to improve it over the next mandate?
Rusty Ensign didn’t hesitate to indicate that he felt the current climate wasn’t good.
“To be forthright, we have unfortunately the most cumbersome jurisdiction right next to the most progressive jurisdiction in the province,” said Ensign.
“This bureaucracy has scared so much business away that it’s frightening. We have to reestablish our reputation in the business world to attract business.”
Bryden Winsby said that he’s “not quite the gloom and doomer that Rusty is.”
“I’m also not so sure that things are so bad; thank goodness we’re not Italian. What we need to do here is look at what the municipality can do and where it may be at fault,” said Winsby.
Cathy Sinclair said that West Kelowna needs more development.
“I feel that business in West Kelowna is suffering. There needs to be more development,” said Sinclair.
“You go through the little Westbank centre and you see your tattoo parlours and your porn shops, but you don’t see those little clothing stores that are in those nooks.”
Gordon Ficke said he saw the glass half-full.
“We have a great business climate here in West Kelowna,” said Ficke.
“Whatever happens on WFN land, we’re not in competition with them. What we have to have is something unique and special here: Businesses that they don’t offer on WFN lands.”
Carol Zanon was also optimistic about about the business climate.
“You can look at things like they’re problems, but they’re also opportunities,” said Zanon.
“A shortcoming is that on WFN land the band is able to build without going through all the processes that we as a municipality in B.C. have to do. That is a shortcoming, but in the long run we have two business development officers that are working with each other to create a better climate.”
Gux Albrecht used his personal experiences to answer the question.
“As a developer, I’ve developed 75,000 square feet of industrial space in the last five years, creating 34 business spaces in this community, so I have a little bit of experience in this scenario,” said Albrecht.
“We’ve gone from the RDCO to the DWK and during this time my approval time for a development permit has gone from six weeks to six months. My DCC’s are up 420 per cent in the last six years. We need clarity in the OCP. We need to communicate to DWK an urgency that time is money in business.”
Duane Ophus said that he’s not willing to go back and do things they way they were done 15 years ago.
“I wake up every day thinking about jobs and the economy and business in our community. I realize there are obstacles and we do have to get better,” said Ophus.
“But I want to say, we are not going back to the Wild West if I have anything to do or say about it.”
Mike Smith said that the key to creating higher paying jobs is creating growth in the industrial sector.
“I think that we need to increase the opportunity for more industrial-based businesses so that we can have higher paying jobs,” said Smith.
Randall Robinson didn’t blame the current council for the climate.
“The climate doesn’t just fall back on this council and mayor of course, (but) I don’t think that the climate is what we want,” said Robinson.
“We have to listen to what’s going on with the development community, the business community and the investment community and realize that maybe we don’t have it quite right and continue to work on that.”
Mike Trenn said the district should focus on attracting knowledge-based businesses.
“There are people around the world with lots of money, with lots of businesses, that want to come to a safe and secure town and country environment. That’s what we’ve got and that’s what we should develop,” said Trenn.
Gord Milsom said that there are things that the district can do to better the climate.
“We can continue with our capital projects and that helps stimulate the economy. We can keep our taxes low and manage our finances properly,” said Milsom.
“As far as the development industry is concerned: Yes, we’ve got some work to do.”
Rick de Jong said that there are steps to be taken; however, council has begun to address some of the problems.
“Seventy-five per cent of the working people within the DWK get up every morning and leave the district to go to work. We have a shrinking tax base. We have a lack of downtown appeal. We have a weak community identity,” said de Jong.
“We have hurdles to overcome, but the current council has already taken steps to address the hurdles.”
David Knowles said the glass half-empty attitude doesn’t help anyone.
“Doom and gloom is not what we need and it’s really not valid. We had an expensive consulting company come in and address (development process problems),” said Knowles.
“They came up with solutions months ago and a lot of them have already been addressed, the rest are in process.”
The candidates will meet for a third and final forum, hosted by the Westside Residents’ and Business Association, on Nov. 16 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Westside Alliance Church Hall.