Why Big White Ski Resort isn't in the Central Okanagan | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Kelowna News

Why Big White Ski Resort isn't in the Central Okanagan

Big White Ski Resort is on Kelowna's doorstep but sends millions in tax dollars to Trail.
Image Credit: wikimedia.org

If you break your leg skiing at Big White, an ambulance will rush you to Kelowna General Hospital 60 kilometres away.

If you’re staying the weekend at Big White, you'll likely buy your groceries in Kelowna and the garbage you leave behind is hauled to the Glenmore landfill in Kelowna.

But, if you want to build a chalet, the building inspector has to take more than two hours to drive the 200 kilometres from an office in Trail. And, given the millions of dollars in construction on the ski hill this year alone, that's a lot of trips by building inspectors.

That’s because the ski hill that most people refer to as Kelowna’s — actually isn't. It's in the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, with its headquarters far off in Trail.

Yet most property owners on the hill, along with most skiers, live in the Central Okanagan or travel through Kelowna International Airport to get there.

Big White has an assessed value of $575 million and pays almost $6 million a year in taxes, including more than $3 million to the Kootenay Boundary regional district.

So, why is Big White not in the Central Okanagan?

“It dates back to 1964 or 1966 when the regional districts were created,” Vicki Gee, the director for Area E of the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary - which includes Big White - told iNFOnews.ca. “It is very unlikely that the province would ever change that, because they try to keep things relatively economically viable. We’re already not a very large regional district, population-wise.”

If a change is ever going to be made, it won’t be initiated by the Regional District of the Central Okanagan, board chair Gail Given said.

“If they went through that process and that was the will of the people of Big White and something that was acceptable to Kootenay Boundary, would we say no?” she pondered. “I don’t know. We would have to look at what the downsides are because, suddenly having to provide services further away is expensive.

“People would have to ask, do they want to be in our dog control service and pay for our economic development services? It may not be a benefit for the 300 residents and it may add additional costs to the regional district that are outside the benefits we receive from taxation. It’s not a simple - we get extra money. It also means we have to deliver services there as well. That may or may not be of benefit.”

Regional districts were set up all over the province in the 1960s because there was a lack of planning in rural areas and people living outside cities didn’t help pay for things like the hospitals they used.

The first regional district was created in 1965 but it took five years to set up the system province-wide.

Their boundaries, for the most part, match those of school districts but with “a number of compromises necessary to ensure that each had a reasonable tax base,” states a Primer on Regional Districts produced by the provincial government.

And, while Gee may believe the province wouldn’t agree to move Big White to the Central Okanagan, there have been dramatic changes in the system over the years.

In 1987, for example, two northern B.C. regional districts were split because of large geographic distances and in 1998 the Greater Vancouver Regional District was created. In that case, hospital financing was dropped and transit, major roads and air care were added.

“The system has changed dramatically both because of provincial interests and local needs,” the primer states. “In some cases, this was the result of a provincial fiat but more often it was the result of inter-jurisdictional consensus and collaboration. Regional districts have evolved.”

Of course, losing Big White would not sit well with Gee, who lives near Rock Creek, or Area E that she represents.

Area E stretches from Big White, down through Rock Creek and east to Greenwood. It has seven per cent of the regional district’s population and 53 per cent of its land base.

While Big White has only 12 per cent of Area E’s population, it pays about 75 per cent of the taxes - $5.9 million out of $7.9 million for all of Area E.

That includes provincial taxes so only about $3 million of Big White’s taxes go to the regional district.

Big White also pays $260,000 to two Kootenay hospital districts and nothing towards the Central Okanagan, even though they only use Kelowna hospital services.

That’s not a concern to Given, who pointed out that Kelowna’s hospital provides specialized service for the entire Interior Health region.

Big White has its own fire department that has a mutual aid agreement with the Joe Rich Fire Department.

Last year there were two mutual aid events, one for each department. So far this year, there hasn’t been any such calls.

There isn’t any push coming from Big White residents to switch regional districts.

Instead, there is a frustration over the province not allowing them to become a resort municipality, which would give them access to provincial funding programs, no matter what regional district they belong to.

For example, despite all the taxes paid to the province, ambulances are only available on weekends and statutory holidays. Weekdays, they have to drive out from Kelowna.

“We are currently hosting a world cup snowboard cross event,” Michael J. Ballingall, senior vice-president of Big White Ski Resort told iNFOnews.ca. “The world is coming to Big White in the third week of January. The economic benefit to the province of British Columbia is huge. The organizing committee of that event has to spend over $9,000 of money that would go to the athletes for that event so there is an ambulance on site.

“In my world, that’s absolutely ridiculous. We’ve already paid for the service of those ambulances and, if there was an ambulance station at Big White, we wouldn’t have to pay that.”

Of course, if those ambulances are needed, they will speed to Kelowna, not to Trail.

The province has refused to grant Big White resort municipality status, Ballingall said, because at 300 to 500 permanent residents it’s deemed too small.

On the other hand, Sun Peaks, near Kamloops, is a resort municipality with 616 residents, according to the 2016 Census.

Big White is also served provincially and federally by politicians that are far away, not in Kelowna.

For now, all these boundary issues are laying dormant as Big White prepares for an influx of some 1,700 seasonal workers and hundreds of thousands of skiers.

As Given pointed out, Kelowna still gets a lot of benefit from its ski hill, not the least of which is the airport improvement fees attached to plane tickets that are paying for major airport expansions without having to use any tax dollars.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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