Looking back on 2020, it is impossible to escape the impact of COVID-19, but the mayors of Oliver and Osoyoos are keeping an optimistic outlook on what’s to come and celebrating the achievements made during a challenging 365 days.
While there have been a few isolated cases of COVID-19 in Osoyoos, the border town has remained relatively untouched by the virus, and until recently, Oliver had seen very few outbreaks or isolated cases.
“Yes it’s been a busy year, but you know what? It’s been fascinating dealing with all of the things that we’ve had to deal with. Great staff, great council. It probably has been has easy as it possibly could have been in terms of the pandemic,” Mayor Sue McKortoff said in a year-end interview with the Times-Chronicle. “We haven’t had a lot of problems in Osoyoos, although we hear about the odd one.”
Osoyoos fairs well economically
Despite 2020 saving the worst for last, the South Okanagan has fared pretty well economically and in terms of staying safe during the pandemic.
“Osoyoos and the South Okanagan have done probably better than a lot of places around the country in terms of our economic development, our businesses and our resorts, motels and hotels. We’ve been pretty full over the summer, quite frankly people were rather surprised,” McKortoff said.
Concerns were raised about cross-border business being cut off by the Canada/U.S. border closure, but Osoyoos appears to have withstood the economic hardship in a general sense.
“It didn’t really make much of a difference in terms of hotels, motels because anybody who did come across the border probably didn’t stay here they would go back home at the end of the day,” McKortoff said.
In a year of anxiety, some glimmers of hope have emerged as well. Mckortoff noted new businesses have started up in Osoyoos including a new florist, the town’s first microbrewery and a tack shop.
“Those are positive things for a small town like ours,” McKortoff said.
There was certainly no deficit in community spirit in Osoyoos as well, especially around the holidays.
“I just have to say I’m absolutely amazed at the very positive innovative things that people in our town have done to try and have a happy Christmas, have a happy holiday. The lights in this town are phenomenal,” McKortoff said.
“I think so many people have tried to do positive things, look at the Food Bank, they’ve had lots of people donating food and donating money because they know it’s important.”
Annual charity drives in Osoyoos also saw plenty of donations like the yearly Toys for Tots to Teens which saw a ton of generosity from residents.
“Lots of positive things are happening in this town, and I think in many other places too, we’re not alone, and it makes me very happy to be a member of our community and to be the mayor. We have to think about the positive things and think how lucky we are to live in this wonderful place.”
Among the list of projects the Town of Osoyoos was able to complete in 2020 is the new sewer lift station which opened this year. McKortoff hopes it will help deal with pumping of sewage lagoons which have become to a problematic smell at certain times of year.
“We’re doing a study on the whole sewage system and what we need to do because we do know people have been concerned about the sewer odour. So we’re really looking carefully at that to see whether there are some things that we can to do to try and lessen that. We probably won’t eliminate it but certainly lessen it,” she said.
As well, Osoyoos saw the completion of the bike path from Lakeshore Drive that meets up with the Pioneer Walkway, allowing travellers to go back and forth on their bikes from Lakeshore into town.
Another feather in the cap for Osoyoos in 2020 is the progress made on the Osoyoos Museum relocating to Main Street. The new museum plans to open in 2021, after facing many setbacks including theft of equipment during renovations and, of course, COVID-19 throwing a huge wrench into the schedule.
“So many businesses have provided what they need in there and have provided some things for free and some things at a really reduced rate. There have been volunteers in there painting, helping and moving and all that kind of stuff. It’s a real community effort.”
Challenging learning experience in Oliver
If nothing else, Mayor of Oliver Martin Johansen said 2020 was at the very least educational.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience, people in the community looking to the town to provide some answers. Especially early on in the pandemic, I thought the anxiety level sort of went off the charts there in early April. Things kind of calmed down in the summer,” Johansen said.
The anxiety early on in the pandemic, a few cases here and there, has certainly shifted as the second wave of COVID-19 has hit the community hard with the outbreak at McKinney Place.
As the pandemic started hitting closer to home early in 2020, the financial challenges also began to rear their head.
Oliver town council went back and reviewed their budget after approving it in January 2020, reducing property tax increases from nine per cent to zero. That also included a reduction in the late payment penalties and water user fees were reduced from four per cent to zero. First-quarter utility fees were reduced by 50 per cent with no penalties for late payment as well.
“We stepped up right away, the community was hurting. We understood the community was hurting and we did some things to help everybody out,” Johansen said.
The year was not without accomplishments for the town as well. The Town of Oliver and the Osoyoos Indian Band cut the ribbon on Bridge Park in August and the town stepped up support for bylaw services going from “reactive to proactive,” Johansen said.
“Town staff adapted well and kept the town facilities open, maintained our service levels. Overall I think the town has weathered this in good shape, but $1.5 million in COVID-19 restart money is going to be very helpful and key consideration in the upcoming budget discussions,” Johansen said. “There are still impacts on the community economically and we’re going to be looking to see what we can do to reduce those impacts, for sure.”
Through the challenging year, Johansen said the town supported development in the community and he is looking forward to multiple projects getting underway in 2021. Some of those projects include affordable housing on Airport Street and a multi-family housing project on 688 Co-op Ave.
The long-awaited Gallagher Lake siphon project was finally tendered in 2020 and construction started Nov. 1.
“That was a huge liability for the town and the South Okanagan agricultural community that we were able to address,” Johansen said.
Looking ahead, the Town of Oliver is in a bit of a pinch. Helping out residents with tax cuts is helpful in the short term for residents who needed a break, but the Town of Oliver is expecting to have a population over 5,000 in the next census meaning a huge jump in RCMP costs.
“We’ve got to look to the budget and figure out what the must-haves are and what the nice-to-haves are and what we can do to reduce the budget,” Johansen said.
In April 2022, the town is expected to start paying 70 per cent of RCMP costs, approximately $750,000.
“We’re sort of caught in a corner here. We need to cut back but at the same time we need to create a revenue stream to be able to pay for those RCMP expenses, approximately three-quarters of a million dollars,” Johansen said.
Johansen said priorities for council moving forward are supporting local businesses through the Grow Oliver plan adopted by council earlier in 2020, encourage development on Station Street and revitalizing Main Street.
Affordable housing continues to be a key for the Town of Oliver’s economic stability moving forward into the new year as well.
“I know I’ve talked to companies in town that are looking to attract skilled workers here and there is no place for people to live. So it makes it really hard for businesses to continue to be successful and expand and take on more work when they can’t get skilled labour here because the skilled labour has no place to live,” Johansen said.
There is a lot of optimism for 2021, Johansen said, as public health measures are expected to ease with the rollout of vaccines, but there is still a lot of work to be done in 2021.
“The community did good, they rallied to support businesses and find different ways to celebrate events that got cancelled. We still had an SOSS graduation this year, the Oliver Ambassador continues, Spirit of Oliver Awards. Everybody is looking forward to 2021 and hopefully in the summer and the fall we’ll be able to start looking to have our events and get people together more,” Johansen said. “The anxiety is still here in the community and I think people are so tired of the pandemic, but we still need to do what we need to do. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
McKortoff, along with Oliver Mayor Martin Johansen and many others in the South Okanagan, is watching the outbreak at McKinney Place in Oliver with concern. The South Okanagan was dealt a blow at the end of the year as the outbreak has claimed the lives of eight residents.
“It’s been challenging, it’s been challenging for the town,” Johansen said. “It’s been heartbreaking for the town, the recent outbreak at McKinney Place is just awful and it continues on through Christmas here and it’s going to be into the new year. The community has really stepped up to support (staff and residents).”
“It was pretty scary to see that outbreak and see how quickly it progressed,” McKortoff said, noting how critical the adjacent South Okanagan General Hospital is. Staff and patients in the hospital from both Oliver and Osoyoos and surrounding communities rely on the hospital, which is so far unaffected by the outbreak at McKinney Place.
“It’s not good, but I’m quite happy that we are in line and in the process of getting a vaccine and I see Canada has now approved the second vaccine. Those are positive steps that we have to look forward to,” McKortoff said.
Dale Boyd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Times-Chronicle