We had what I call a Tipping Point party in Kelowna the other night: a party where groups of people got together who normally wouldn’t associate simply because they work and play in different social worlds – accountants, employment counsellors, computer programmers, urban planners, landscapers, sales managers and teachers – and I told a story I read through John Horn’s post about Joel Plaskett. Apparently Joel Plaskett refuses to come back to Kelowna because the crowds here are dead.
Here are some important disclosures about me: 1) I’m not from Kelowna, I’m from Vancouver, so I bring an outsider’s perspective and ask lots of annoying questions; 2) I meet exceptional people everyday in Kelowna, but on the whole often agree with Joel. A friend once asked me whether someday I will ever tell people I’m from Kelowna (I always say, “I live in Kelowna, but I’m from Vancouver”). My answer was “Not yet”. But someday I hope I feel differently.
Several years ago, I went to a groundbreaking show at a downtown Kelowna pub where local hero Shane Koyczan opened for Danny Michel. I’d never heard Danny Michel before and I was stunned when he walked on stage, just him and an electric guitar, and provided the most sonically cool and rip-rockin’ show that one man could make. Absolutely unbelievable. I’ve been a Danny Michel fan ever since.
Unfortunately I was also very drunk on the occasion – I had chosen to drink stout beer all evening which results in heavy lips and heavy feet – and my most vivid memory of the concert was of me falling on my face on the way to the bathroom. Unfortunately, it was also the loudest noise from the crowd that evening. No cheers, no catcalls, no song requests. And yet, the music that Danny Michel performed that night would’ve started a riot in Montreal, it was that good.
So I shared Joel Plaskett’s comments at our party, and instead of angry responses, I got sheepish ones. Apparently it’s a well-known fact around here that Kelowna has reserved crowds. If you want to go to a great concert, you make plans to leave Kelowna, you go to Vancouver or Washington. Even at hockey games, no one cheers very hard until the playoffs.
A friend of mine who moved to Revelstoke told me an interesting story about the Junior B hockey team there which regularly scored low attendances. A funny cultural shift happened when Revelstoke became a destination of choice for sports-obsessed Australians looking to work abroad at a ski hill. Australians quickly learn that junior hockey is hard, fast and violent – all the things that Aussies love in their sports – and they’re permitted to drink lots of beer at games. The Aussies started buying up all the tickets along the boards and would stack their beer cups against the glass. They would cheer hysterically when a body check would send cups flying into the crowd in all directions. People around the entire rink would cheer (it’s possible that some betting was involved) and even the players and local fans were getting caught up in the excitement. Attendance at games has never been better.
I now realize that culture has a tipping point. Cities change, sometimes very quickly. When I lived in Vancouver, I remember locals complaining that the city was too boring (this was pre-Olympics) and the media had dubbed it “No-Fun-Couver”. (Even as recently as last spring, I read that UBC was making changes to admissions procedures to accommodate cultural as well as academic variables to make for a more diverse student body.) But I don’t hear as many complaints these days about Vancouver – every time I visit I have a blast – so things must be turning around. For Kelowna’s sake, both economically and culturally, I hope that shift is headed this way or tough times lie ahead.
For discussion, I’m throwing out a licentious thought: that the key driver of well-being in any city lies within your population of 25-35 years old, single, college or university graduates. If you lose more of these people than you attract, bad things are ahead. Because these are your future entrepreneurs, movers & rump shakers. It’s also what keeps your town from becoming a boring place. Kelowna has been failing on this metric and it’s something that desperately needs to turn around. In fact, it’s a key variable that every city should watch.
Masthead image courtesy of Adam Jones, PhD