Kelowna draws new residents, tourists with tech boom and dining renaissance

Mission Hill Winery is shown in this undated handout photo. Thanks to a thriving tech industry that has seen more than a 30 per cent growth in just two years, Kelowna has seen its demographics change drastically and its cultural scene adapt to appease younger tastes. The B.C. city has long been known for just its world-class wineries -- Mission Hill, for example, has won numerous awards for its wine, including best Riesling and best Pinot Noir in the world at the Decanter World Wine Awards -- and its 2,000 hours of sunshine, minimal precipitation and flat terrain made it idyllic for retirees.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Mission Hill Winery

KELOWNA, B.C. - Thanks to a thriving tech industry that has seen more than a 30 per cent growth in just two years, Kelowna has seen its demographics change drastically and its cultural scene adapt to appease younger tastes.

The B.C. city has long been known for just its world-class wineries — Mission Hill, for example, has won numerous awards for its wine, including best Riesling and best Pinot Noir in the world at the Decanter World Wine Awards — and its 2,000 hours of sunshine, minimal precipitation and flat terrain made it idyllic for retirees.

However, given a recent tech boom, and with many natives of Kelowna returning home after being priced out of nearby Vancouver, the city has changed in recent years. It's now skewing much younger.

The economic impact of the tech industry in Kelowna is currently $1.3 billion, with 633 companies as of fall 2016 employing 7,600 people. And 52 per cent of those workers are below the age of 35.

"We're basically changing the demographics of this whole area," says Raghwa Gopal, CEO of Accelerate Okanagan and a 40-year resident of the city.

Accelerate Okanagan, a non-profit organization that was started seven years ago, is the primary tenant of a brand-new $11-million innovation centre in Kelowna's downtown core.

Gopal says seven years ago it would have been difficult to "even dream" of a place like the innovation centre, but with Kelowna having the fastest-growing tech hub in the country, it was time for a change.

"You come downtown Sunday evening and there are actually people walking around, going to restaurants, and it has definitely spurred a lot of new businesses," says Gopal.

"A lot more younger people are coming into town, sure, but we have two high-level post-secondary institutions here (the University of British Columbia's Okanagan Campus and Okanagan College) and we're starting to keep a lot more of those graduating students in town."

Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran says young people were leaving Kelowna for opportunities, but that trend's now changing.

"Young people are recognizing there are opportunities in our city, and a lot more of them are staying," says Basran, who points to a recent study by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which named Kelowna as one of the top cities in Canada for entrepreneurs, as a key reason younger people have decided to stick around.

"The more businesses that are here, and can flourish ... that speaks to the whole 'providing opportunity' piece that we're proud of," Basran explains. "We don't want to rest on that though. There's a great entrepreneurial spirit in our city."

One of the businesses making a name for itself — and finding quick success — is BNA Brewing Co. & Eatery.

The craft brewery and restaurant, just a few blocks from the innovation centre, and located in a building that was formerly home to the British North American Tobacco Company (hence,"BNA") has been getting rave reviews from local and tourist diners alike. And it's not just food and craft beer they're known for — Cintas Canada Ltd. named them a finalist in the company's sixth annual Canada's Best Restroom competition in 2015.

Marketing director Jill Jarrett says the brewery's rapid expansion is a microcosm of Kelowna itself.

"Its success and the way it's been received is a reflection of what's been going on in the city, and the demands of the people who are deciding to stay here," says Jarrett, noting BNA expanded its footprint just a year into operation.

Basran says the next thing Kelowna will be known for, beyond tech, is microbreweries and cideries.

"We're seeing an influx of those popping up in our community, and all of them are top-notch," he says.

And Jarrett states "staying local" has been a key reason for BNA's quick success.

"The types of cuisine we have are anything but local. We've had Indian- and Asian-inspired things on the menu, we've got Italian too, but our chef takes inspiration from all these worldwide cuisines and showcases Okanagan ingredients within them. Our menu changes seasonally because of that," she says.

Along with more than 20 wineries in the area offering tours and tastings and an annual wine festival, visitors can enjoy beautiful vistas of orchards and mountains surrounding the Okanagan Valley city. There's a waterfront park and plenty of beaches for swimming, paddling and other water-based activities. Hiking, golf, museums and farmers markets mean there's something for everyone.


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