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Peach Fest, Ironman among possible cancellations as Penticton mayor eyes the challenges ahead in 2020

File Photo: Penticton mayor John Vassilaki is very concerned about the year ahead, but believes his city is resilient.
File Photo: Penticton mayor John Vassilaki is very concerned about the year ahead, but believes his city is resilient. Shelby Thom / Global News

As the warm breeze begins to wander through the peach and apricot blossoms in the South Okanagan, it’s usually when the first tourists also begin to blow into town.

But small-town B.C. has shut the virtual door on visitors to help locals stay safe, which means tourism revenue has withered on the vine.

Penticton mayor John Vassilaki has spent 64 summers watching the yearly turnover take place in his Okanagan town.

But local beaches and peaches may not feel the same squeeze as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds into 2020, according to a concerned Vassilaki.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Penticton school hamper program sees spike in demand as pandemic continues

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Vassilaki told Global News on the eve of Penticton council considering financial measures to help citizens and the city cope with the economic impact of the virus.

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Cities across B.C. are attempting to juggle financial necessity with the need to help residents also economically survive the downturn.

“My mother said, ‘Yani, I’ve never, ever, ever experienced anything like this’,” he tells of a recent conversation with his 94-year-old mother who survived the depression, the Second World War and immigrating from impoverished Greece to Canada.

Vassilaki said his mother isn’t allowed to have visits from her cherished family, which is the current lonely reality for many elders around the globe.

“It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to her personally.”

READ MORE: Outdoor medical assessment centre opens in Penticton

On Thursday morning, Penticton council will have to choose between everything from penalty-free grace periods for property taxes to utility bill forgiveness and deciding whether to increase taxes or not.

“I wish I had all the money in the world to help everyone,” he said.

Penticton is waiting to hear back from organizers of both the Ironman Triathon and Penticton Peach Festival, whose committees are still deciding if they should cancel their summer events in the city.

Ironman alone has a $10 to $15 million economic impact on the city, according to Vassilaki.

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With tourism non-existent, the casino and South Okanagan Events Centre both shuttered, millions of dollars in city revenue has been curtailed, he said.

Penticton, B.C., mayor on city closing facilities to slow spread of coronavirus
Penticton, B.C., mayor on city closing facilities to slow spread of coronavirus

Before making crucial financial decisions for the year, the city embarked on a survey of more than 1,000 residents to determine the impact COVID-19 has had on local income.

The survey found 37 per cent of respondents have had their employment status impacted in recent weeks.

When it comes to property owners impacted by COVID-19, 52 per cent of the survey’s respondents said they may not be able to pay their property taxes on time.

Nearly 75 per cent of consumer contact-based businesses surveyed stated that their revenue has been directly impacted by the COVID-19 shutdown.

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READ MORE: Penticton company providing virtual therapy to children with special needs during pandemic

Despite the dire news, Vassilaki believes his town of about 34,000 people is resilient.

The survey falls on the heals of a troubling report from Penticton’s RCMP to council on Tuesday, which states total crime is up 14 per cent from last year.

It shows that in the South Okanagan city, problems are adding up, which could escalate in the months ahead if economic hardship befalls more residents.

There were 1,209 incidents of property crime reported in the first quarter of 2020, a 23 per cent increase over the same time period in 2019, according to Supt. Brian Hunter’s report to council.

Mental health act calls are down 24 per cent from the same time period last year but were up 30 per cent since New Years Eve.

“I’m very, very concerned with the remarks of Supt. Brian Hunter,” the mayor said.

Police in Penticton continue to be overworked, with Hunter stating in his report that officers have the highest caseload per member in B.C.: 109 per officer, which is nearly double the provincial average of 59.

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The caseload has slightly improved from the 113 caseloads Penticton reported in a 2018 provincial survey.

READ MORE: Okanagan’s first government-run cannabis store opens in Penticton

“He couldn’t blame [the current increase in crime] on COVID-19,” Vassilaki said.

“Recidivism remains a problem in Penticton,” according to Hunter, who said in his report that his officers are working on identifying and managing prolific offenders.

Vassilaki believes people who come to Penticton to live on the streets do so because it’s “too nice of a place in the province.”

“They’re catered to here,” he said. “Whatever they need, they find here free of charge.”

Hunter has not asked for more officers, but the mayor admits the city can’t afford to be short-staffed by police.

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“They’re the hardest working detachment in the province,” he said.

The priorities for Penticton RCMP into 2021 are crime reduction, road safety, family and sexual violence and the wellness of their own employees.

“Policing can be very stressful for both our sworn police officers and our civilian employees who support police operations,” Hunter’s report stated.

“The effects of this stress can be devastating.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Penticton soup kitchen closes doors due to safety concerns

In a world where many people live paycheque to paycheque, Penticton residents are more likely to be on some sort of government assistance.

According Stats Canada, in 2015, 21,485 Penticton residents aged 15 or older were receiving a government transfer like CPP, employment insurance or disability worth, on average, $9,849 for the year.

The same year, 19,205 people over the age of 15 received employment income in Penticton.

The median income in Penticton in 2015 was $25,990, a reflection of often low-paying, seasonal jobs.

In comparison, in Campbell River on Vancouver Island where the population is also around 34,000, the stats show less government transfers (20,715 individuals) for less median value ($8,398).

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Its population is younger: 21 per cent are over the age of 65. There were also more people employed in 2015: 20,465 people over 15 years of age, and they were making more income: a median of $27,721.

Penticton’s mayor is asking residents to be patient during this difficult time.

“I know how stressful the present situation is,” he said. “But it’s important that we don’t think only of ourselves.”

Vassilaki asks everyone to call their loved ones and not visit them and to heed Dr. Bonnie Henry’s advice.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Penticton cracks down on social-distancing rule breakers

“Seniors… a lot of them need as much help as we can give them,” he said of both social distancing and virtual connection through phone or video calls.

“I still believe we’ll come through it. We’ll end up a lot stronger than before.”

He believes 2020 will be a lost year for everyone around the province, including communities whose leaders want to see their vision through during their four-year terms.

Vassilaki is considering asking the premier to extend council terms an extra year so there is more time for priorities once the world economy resumes, post-pandemic.

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“It’s how I was raised. Don’t put it aside until it’s done.”

He asks everyone to stay home, and stay safe.

Penticton council meets at 10 a.m. and the meeting can be viewed live on-line.