Living In Kelowna

  • Kelowna Real Estate
Sep 26

Another summer has come and gone, leaving us full of memories. The children at our feet are still bronzed with the weeks of hot weather and full of stories of bonfires, marshmallows, inner tubes and mosquitoes.

When I ask friends about summer holidays when they were kids, many simply say “Kelowna.” Their dad drove the station wagon to the Okanagan every summer, meeting the same summer neighbours at the same cabins and making the same memories kids do today. So it’s not surprising when I ask friends who are 50+ where they would like to live today, Kelowna immediately comes to mind.

So, what would it really be like to live in Kelowna? Would it be a childhood vacation rerun? What about work and a place to live? And what is there to do? On those points, if you’re 50+, the news is good.

Back in those childhood holidays, Kelowna was a sleepy orchard community of under 10,000; today, there are over 180,000 residents. Like then, Kelowna is still in the fruit growing business, but the major crop today is grapes and the wine industry is booming. In fact, wine is so popular that Kelowna hosts two major wine festivals each year – one during the first 10 days of October and another at the end of April into May.

Kelowna works hard at maintaining a strong sense of community and the wine festivals are just part of a long menu of events and festivals. In February, it’s the Canadian Culinary Championships with chefs from across the country. The Great Okanagan Beer Festival takes over Waterfront Park for a weekend in May, the Hopscotch Festival pours in September and, in October, the intriguingly titled Okanagan Food and Wine Film Festival is three days of food, wine and films.

It’s not all about booze and food, of course. The Kelowna Kiwanis Music Festival is one of the largest community festivals in Canada. It’s so big, they schedule it over several months to allow proper space and time for adjudication. The 2016 festival begins with dance in March, strings, concert band and the piano festivals in April, with one day, May 1st for the Musical Theatre Festival. This is followed in May by classical voice and choir. It’s huge!

Another event that involves the occasional beverage is the Kelowna Regatta. Founded in the early 1900s, the August regatta has grown along with the city. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing; organizers went so far as to cancel the event in the mid-’80s as “negative elements” caused drunken riots and mayhem during the festivities. Today, the story is very different with 30,000 visitors for the sailing competitions and water events.

The Okanagan has a long history of winter events, too, such as the Vernon Winter Carnival now celebrating its 54th year. The first was held on Kalamalka Lake in 1893 but the winter carnival, as we know it, began in 1961 and attracts throngs of visitors from Kelowna and throughout BC. The theme for February 2016 is “Mardi Gras.”

All these community events require an engaged population with the time and money to help make them happen. That prosperity is a key factor attracting many newcomers to Kelowna. The city has grown into the largest trading centre in the west between Vancouver and Calgary. The UBC campus there has over 9,000 students and staff, and Okanagan College offers over 120 areas of study. These institutions alone pump over $1 billion into the local economy.

At UBC’s Kelowna campus, adults in non-degree programs have an intellectual feast of opportunity; Film, Greek Hebrew or Latin, Human Kinetics, Geography, Visual Arts and Political Science are just a few of the courses on offer. Normally, people over 65 do not pay tuition or student fees. However, students can expect to pay fees of about $100–$150 per course for course materials.

Add the Kelowna International Airport (YLW) to the equation and the economy really takes off. Now the 10th largest Canadian airport in terms of volume, YLW features daily flights across Canada and to the US with regular service to Mexico, Cuba and the Caribbean. As with any airport, Kelowna also enjoys many aviation-related firms established nearby.

Another Kelowna plus for people 50+ is how easy it is to get there. The building of the Coquihalla highway cut hours off the drive from Vancouver and pours visitors directly into Kelowna. WestJet and Air Canada log more than 25 flights a day between Vancouver and Kelowna. It all adds up to 1,600,000 air travellers a year.

Since we are focused on folks 50+, what about local healthcare? Here again, the news is good. Kelowna General is finally nearing the end of a massive expansion that began in 2008 and cost over $630 million. The final touch is a new cardiac surgical centre due to open this fall.

The sense of community, the services, great climate and the strong economy are all important, but probably the strongest draw for Kelowna is home ownership.

To give you a comparison to the swoon-inducing house prices in the Lower Mainland, here are the results of a quick scan of recent real estate listings. At the low end, a Westbank mobile home, complete with shade tree and a view of the lake; $28,000. At the other end of the scale, on the eastern shore and well south of downtown, a 17-acre Shangri-La that comes with an 11,000 square foot home and stunning views; $14,000,000. In between these extremes, a three-bedroom condo with a two-car garage within walking distance to the Cultural District; $150,000.

With prices like these, and historically low interest rates, it’s easy to see why the Kelowna region has a high percentage of home ownership. Another reason for this is the level of business opportunity. The City of Kelowna says there are 17,378 businesses in the city, most of them smaller firms with under 20 employees. So, even if you want to be “semi-retired” and work part-time, opportunities abound.

Along with the UBC campus and the airport, another fast-growing sector is the digital entertainment industry.

When Disney bought Kelowna’s Club Penguin in 2007, 300-plus staff were deployed in the city as the world-wide headquarters for the Disney gaming division. Two other digital entertainment firms growing in Kelowna are Bardel Studios and Yeti Farm. Both have long-term service contracts with California studios.

Robert Fine of the City of Kelowna’s Business Development Office says global corporations have made Kelowna home, but the real heart and soul of the city is small business. “We’re rated in the top five per cent of business-friendly Canadian communities, although we are still one of the smaller Canadian cities,” says Fine.

Another advantage to working and living in Kelowna is buried beneath the streets. In 2015, the city launched the first of three phases of improvements to the fibre optic cable network serving the city. The data speed of one gigabyte per second is a windfall to techies working from home and for the newly announced Okanagan Centre for Innovation. The centre includes public spaces and classrooms, as well as office and studio space for online firms.

The fibre optic network isn’t just for business, either. Condo buildings and homes need high-speed internet, too. And it’s a boon to Kelowna General Hospital reaching to take advantage of $1 billion in recent capital investments for expansion.

And what about when you’re not working? As in “fully retired” or enjoying the weekend? The Kelowna region is famous for its amazing variety of outdoor activities (see festivals list above). The town sits in the middle of the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake with Knox Mountain to the north and Kelowna Mountain to the south. Everywhere are endless kilometres of trails and side roads to walk, hike and bike.

The Okanagan has been a holiday mecca for decades, so camping spots are everywhere. Kelowna itself has 19 golf courses, 135 kilometres of lake in which to swim, boat and fish, plus there are courts for tennis, pickleball and badminton, bocce fields, volleyball beaches – you name it, you can play it.

As for winter sports, people who know Kelowna remind me that besides the well-known ski resorts nearby, there are many winter activities. There are almost 5,000 acres of parkland in and around the city and snow turns them into excellent snowshoeing country.

Another family favourite is skating on the Okanagan Lake waterfront. Since Okanagan Lake is mostly ice-free in the winter, Stuart Park and other Kelowna parks have excellent skating surfaces where families gather.

But you can’t exercise 24/7; sometimes you just want to relax. Kelowna has hundreds of cafés and restaurants in an increasingly adventurous downtown scene and, a short drive away, many of the local vineyards offer superb food service.

If you’re hungry for some culture along with that latté, and you’re between festival dates, start at the RAC, The Rotary Arts Centre. More evidence of the engagement in the community, this huge performing arts centre offers a packed schedule of events and exhibits, as well as concerts. It’s located in what used to be the centre of the BC fruit packing industry, now transformed into the Cultural District.

Here’s a look at a typical Thursday in August at the RAC. Feeling chilly? Thursday is Salsa Thursday, every week, at RAC and it’s free. Need to relax? Tricia Dalgliesh is playing piano in the RAC lounge. That’s free, too. Feeling crafty? The Ponderosa Spinners, Weavers and Fibre Artists have an open studio demo until 7 p.m., after which you can sit down for the open studio in the Painting and Drawing room for a $5 drop-in fee. And if you feel like simply looking, there are four other art exhibits throughout the building.

Another outstanding example of how Kelowna blends culture and community is the Kelowna Art Gallery. Their famous Family Sundays program gives kids and parents weekly adventures in creating their own artworks. Or there’s the Art Lab program, which is “fun, free and open to everyone.”

Down the block from the gallery is the Packing House, a beautiful brick heritage landmark building that was key to Kelowna’s history and houses several museums.

The logo for the Kelowna Museums is a red paw print of a grizzly bear containing a human handprint. This curious symbol goes back to the unnamed beginnings of the town in the 1800s. A white settler had dug an underground hut for winter shelter. Overhearing curious Okanagan Indians talking about the smoke curling from the ground where the settler’s “soddie” was built, he popped his head out, complete with fur cap and bristling beard.

The natives were so amused at the furry sight, they immediately gave the man the nickname “Brown Bear.” Other settlers liked the sound of the native name for grizzly bear – “kelowna” – and the area was registered under that name in 1892.

One thing that hasn’t changed much since those pioneer days is the climate. Even in today’s topsy-turvy weather world, a hot Kelowna summer is something you can rely on.

Year-round residents also know Kelowna winter temperatures can sometimes dip to minus 30 with a wind chill. Despite the cold winters, Okanagan Lake rarely freezes and the relatively warm air over the water rises to form winter clouds that cover the valley. Those clouds ensure there is always snow for Christmas; an average of 42 centimetres over December and January.

That steady supply of snow has helped attract three different ski resorts to Kelowna; Big White, 56 kilometres east of the city, Apex Mountain near Penticton to the south and Crystal Mountain, a quick 25 minutes west of the centre of downtown.

Happily, with the long hot summers and cold winters, there are still four distinct seasons. Spring temperatures rise an average of 15 degrees between April and early June, making gardening a favourite pastime. There’s a similar drop on the thermometer between September and November with an added bonus of weeks of gorgeous autumn colour in the vineyards and orchards.

As I said, friends in the 50+ range still smile and nod at their memories of Kelowna summers. Now with kids and grandchildren of their own, we’ve found more reasons for them to smile; they’re seeing a whole new side to Kelowna.