The year’s top stories: #1 – Community divides over waterslides in Skaha Park

Judging by the flood of angry letters to the editor and continued coverage, there’s no doubt the proposal to lease a portion of Skaha Lake Park to developers to build waterslides was the top news story of the year in Penticton.

Since the summer, The Herald has published a total of 427 letters against, and 31 for, the waterslides, easily topping previous highs set by the layoff of announcer Dennis Walker from Giant FM in 2012, and the installation and subsequent removal of the Frank, the Baggage Handler nude statue in 2005.

In addition, 5,135 Penticton residents and 3,175 non-residents have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the waterslide issue, which landed on the public’s radar at the height of summer.

At a special meeting in July, city council gave preliminary approval to a 29-year deal with Trio Marine Group to hand over a portion of the park for development in exchange for annual lease payments and a cut of revenues.

That triggered a public backlash unlike any seen in Penticton in recent memory, as opponents turned out in droves to multiple rallies to voice their concerns.

Six of eight living former mayors – Dan Ashton and Al Kenyon declined comment – also came out against the project.

“It’s gone right out of control. This is crazy,” one of the former mayors, Garry Litke, said at an August rally outside City Hall.

“It just shows there is a disconnect between the council and the population. There’s no communication going on, council is not listening to the people. And the number of people is only going to get bigger until somebody pays attention.”

Opponents later formed the Save Skaha Park society to take on the city, filing a lawsuit in September that alleged the local government ran afoul of provincial laws in 10 different ways when it inked the long-term lease with Trio, which already had a separate deal in place to upgrade and operate the nearby marina.

Members of the society also in September attracted 1,000 people to a rally at the park where they linked arms around the area proposed for water slides.

“This has exceeded my expectations,” said co-organizer Lisa Martin.

“We were hoping for 400 people and didn’t really know what to expect. It shows momentum hasn’t died. People are passionate about saving their park.”

Supporters held their own rallies, but their numbers paled in comparison when just 100 people showed up for an event in the park on a cold, wet day in November.

“I think it was a pretty decent turnout. I think people coming out in this kind of weather shows that they are passionate about it,” said organizer Miranda Tumbach.

Tom Dias, one of the principals of Trio Marine Group, said it was heartening to see a diverse crowd there that included young families and seniors.

“I think that there is lots of support (for the project) in this town,” said Dias, who noted his company was not involved in organizing the event.

Trio also got votes of support from Tourism Penticton and the Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce.

“The chamber is not out there saying that this is going to solve all the employment issues in Penticton or going to be the crown jewel that attracts thousands more tourists to the area,” said president Jason Cox, “but it is one more piece of attractive inventory that will be here for visitors and residents to enjoy and make this a more liveable city.”

But in acknowledgement of public concerns, city council has since ordered Trio to complete environmental and archeological assessments requested by the Penticton Indian Band, and also begun work on a new parks master plan.

“It’s time we look ahead, and while we’re moving forward with the Skaha Marina waterslide project, now is the time to initiate a community dialogue about parks,” Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said when he introduced the idea in August.

“I think if nothing else, this last few months has really brought out the passion in people for parks, and the need for us to really look at putting some more clarity around what happens in and around parks and what’s permitted or allowable and, moving forward, how we should view parks.”