Biz leaders hail 'consensus-builder' Watson for pragmatic leadership

Jim Watson
Jim Watson says he won't be running for re-election this fall. File photo

Ottawa business leaders praised Mayor Jim Watson Friday as a “strong advocate” for local entrepreneurs, saying the longtime politician – who declared earlier in the day he would not be running for re-election this fall – brought a “disciplined” approach to the job that helped the capital weather the economic storm of COVID-19 and cleared the way for major projects such as the revitalization of Lansdowne Park.

Watson, 60, made the announcement Friday morning, saying he was moving on from the job he has held for nearly 12 straight years when his current term ends.

“The decision was both easy and tough,” Watson said in a statement on his website, adding he made up his mind three years ago that if he won the 2018 mayoral race, it would be his final go-round as the city’s top elected official. 

“On the one hand, I loved almost every hour of every day and it was a true privilege and honour to serve as our city’s Mayor. However, I also knew that I would be turning 60 during this term of Council, and if I was going to have one more career, then I needed to move on from elected office.”

Public reaction to the news was swift, with critics and supporters of the longest-serving mayor in Ottawa history weighing in, while a slew of high-profile contenders – including former mayor Bob Chiarelli and current councillors Diane Deans and Catherine McKenney – quickly announced plans to seek the job this fall.

'Last of a dying breed'

On Friday, members of Ottawa’s business community called Watson a “consensus-builder” who worked hard to shepherd through major infrastructure projects such as Lansdowne Park, which underwent a massive redevelopment nearly a decade ago and drew about four million visitors in 2019 before the pandemic shut down most events at the site. 

“You could call him the last of a dying breed in a sense,” said Minto Group executive chairman Roger Greenberg, who helped spearhead the Lansdowne project and worked closely with Watson and other civic leaders to create a public-private partnership with the city. 

“I think he’s squarely in the middle, and he sees the issues on the left and the issues on the right and he tries to drive consensus for the best interests of the people of Ottawa. That’s always been the guiding post.”

Ottawa Board of Trade CEO Sueling Ching lauded the mayor for his “fiscal prudence,” noting council regularly delivered on his pledge to hold the line on tax increases under his watch.

Watson’s pragmatic leadership style has drawn the ire of some critics who lament what they consider a lack of bold, visionary ideas. 

But Ching pointed to Ottawa’s successful Canada 150 celebrations in 2017 as an initiative that brought “significant global attention” to the nation’s capital during his tenure.

“I don’t anybody could deny the passion and energy that he’s brought to that role consistently,” she added.

Still, not everything has gone smoothly during Watson’s record run as mayor. One of the city’s signature achievements under his leadership, the $2.1-billion Confederation LRT Line, has been plagued with operational snafus since it opened more than a year behind schedule in 2019. 

While agreeing that Watson must take some of the blame for the light-rail system’s failures, Greenberg said the mayor’s critics have been too quick to pin complex problems on him simply because he’s the man at the top.

Tax relief measures

“He’s head of a process and he had the vision for it,” Greenberg said. “I think far too much has been placed on his shoulders.”

Mark Kaluski, chair of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Associations, said Watson was instrumental in helping get the organization off the ground. 

He noted the mayor was quick to go to bat for the more than 6,000 businesses the group represents when he felt that mainstreet retailers were being unfairly targeted by provincial restrictions aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19.

“He was always fighting for the smaller businesses and concerned about how larger businesses were allowed to remain open while smaller businesses were closed,” Kaluski said. “He was definitely not afraid to scrap with the province on our behalf.”

He added that Watson also pushed for measures to support businesses during the pandemic, including waiving patio fees and implementing a 15 per cent property tax discount for restaurants, retailers and other enterprises that struggled to stay afloat amid widespread COVID-19-related shutdowns.