Elections 2013: Stewart says rapid Westside growth needs services to match

Liberal MLA Ben Stewart gestures to Kelowna's city centre, the easternmost boundary of his Westside-Kelowna riding.

Ben Stewart: Liberal MLA for Westside-Kelowna

In a province notorious for political polarization, Ben Stewart keeps a steady focus on solving the issues brought forward by his constituents. He sees his role not one of political ideology but of community service.

“My view is that I'm more of a collaborator, somebody (who) tries tries to build consensus and how to be more solution-driven,” he says.

Running for MLA in 2009 was a logical transition from many years of volunteer work, Stewart says. After 10 years volunteering with the Westbank Kinsmen Club and another six years fundraising for Kelowna General Hospital's Cancer Centre, Stewart developed a strong respect for community service.

“That's really what it is, I don't look at this any differently,” he says.

Like Kelowna's other liberal candidates, Stewart is a successful business man. He founded the Quail's Gate Estate and Winery with his wife in 1989. While he's sold most of his shares in the company, he takes pride in the success of the business which today employs over 150 year-round staff. Having first-hand experience in the challenges of starting a business shapes his approach to city projects.

“My values are, I'm compassionate and caring, respectful of other people's needs, and I'm fiscally responsible,” he says.

As a third generation citizen born and raised in Kelowna, Stewart has witnessed big transformations in the Valley and especially in West Kelowna.

“Even when we're out door-knocking in new neighbourhoods that I regularly frequent, I had no idea they were growing so rapidly,” he says. Stewart says rapid growth comes with challenges for infrastructure, facilities and services.

“Certainly infrastructure is a big issue in West Kelowna, it's a very rapidly growing community,” he says. Representing the Westside, he says his riding is still pinning down its identity as it transitions from a mostly rural district into an urban cultural centre.

One of the biggest struggles for his constituents is getting the things they need without having to commute too far – especially when it comes to health care. For example, West Kelowna residents have to travel to Rutland to get dialysis treatment. Stewart says that needs to change. While some suggested building an urgent care facility, Stewart says the project will likely take a different form.

“An urgent care centre isn't the right and appropriate centre –a cluster of health facilities is the right approach,” he says.

“I think that re-imagining what it is that's right, building a business plan and helping get it together will make West Kelowna a community that gets the services that people need on their doorstep,” he says.

This also goes for new schools and facilities. Construction is already underway on the new $18 million Mar Jok Elementary School for West Kelowna, as well as the new Rose Valley Community Park – which will be the largest sports field on the west side.

If re-elected Stewart has identified four key areas for future growth. “My number one priority in the next four years is to grow the jobs and the economy here,” he says.
This growth will stem from Kelowna's value-added agriculture industry, as local growers, brewers and wineries continue to carve out a market for their high quality products. And with agriculture already bringing visitors to the city, Stewart wants to see more cultural attractions to keep them in town. He hints at the possibility of a waterfront convention centre.

While Kelowna's technology sector sits slightly under the radar, Stewart says the industry has huge potential to bring jobs and workers to the city. He gives the example of virtual gaming site Club Penguin, which provides high paying jobs to 500 local residents. The industry has set a goal of creating 20,000 technology jobs over the next 10 years, where today it employs 6,000.

On the other side of the lake, Stewart has some optimistic predictions for downtown Kelowna's not too distant future. His Westside riding also includes Kelowna's city centre, as far as the cut off at Spall Road. As a child Stewart remembers when Gordon Drive marked the city limit. He is confident more capital will be coming into downtown, allowing for greater density and diversity. Downtown will have more options for affordable living, be it for university students, seniors or those with lower incomes.

“We need people living there, there's no use in having a bunch of people who live outside – Vancouver has enough of that – we want real live bodies living down there and we're getting that,” he says.

To contact the reporter for this story, email Julie Whittet at jwhittet@infotelnews.ca or call (250)718-0428.

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