With the province poised to loosen restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, Michelle Groulx feels she’s in the right place at the right time to help get mainstreet businesses in the capital back on track.
A veteran marketer who’s worked at some of the region’s largest ad agencies and non-profit foundations, Groulx took over as executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas at the beginning of February, replacing Rebecca Palmer in the role.
The organization represents some 6,400 retailers, restaurants and other small enterprises across the city – in other words, exactly the kind of businesses that are getting hit hardest by the current shutdown aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
“It breaks my heart when I see the people who are suffering the most financially and mental health-wise,” says Groulx, who previously served as executive director of the Westboro Village BIA from 2018 until last spring.
“It’s devastating to see what people are going through. I want to do as much as I can to help.”
"It’s devastating to see what people are going through. I want to do as much as I can to help."
Groulx is joining the organization at a pivotal time as businesses across the region prepare to resume in-store operations after a shutdown of nearly two months.
The province announced Friday afternoon that Ottawa will be placed in the orange zone on the pandemic scale as of next Tuesday, meaning a return to restrictions similar to those in place before Christmas.
Non-essential businesses will be able to welcome customers inside again, bars and restaurants will be permitted to reopen for indoor drinking and dining with a maximum of 50 patrons per establishment, and gyms and recreation facilities will also be allowed to operate once again.
Groulx says it will be essential for businesses to co-operate with local health authorities to find a path to reopening while respecting COVID-19 protocols.
She says public safety has to be the top priority, “but at the same time, livelihoods are at stake here. How does Ottawa achieve this careful balance between the two?”
'We're not in the clear'
Noting the province has already said it won’t hesitate to reimpose restrictions on businesses at a moment’s notice if the virus flares up again, Groulx says vigilance will be a must for consumers and retailers alike.
“We’re not in the clear,” she says.
Ottawa’s 19 BIAs represent retailers and other businesses in a defined neighbourhood, using levies raised from members to fund marketing campaigns, beautification initiatives and events designed to draw customers to a specific area.
OCOBIA aims to be a unified voice for that diverse group, making sure small businesses’ concerns are heard at various levels of government. Groulx, who also runs her own consulting agency, believes the organization can play a vital role to help ensure its members are “successful and thriving and that they are here for the long run.”
The marketing expert says her “mission” is to restore public confidence in mainstream business. To that end, she says OCOBIA wants to see the city survey residents to gauge their support for initiatives aimed at boosting the economy such as limiting vehicle traffic on bar and restaurant strips to make room for patios and pedestrian plazas.
“It’s hard for us to invest in things like closing streets so that people can walk freely if you don’t know that’s what people want,” Groulx explains, adding her organization also plans to do a widespread survey of its members to find out what approaches they’d like to see.
“If they want to continue to do curbside pickup until 2022, we want to know that,” she says. “It might shift how parking happens or it might make more retailers and merchants want to set up outside. It’s really gauging what (business owners) are looking for and what their confidence is.”
Another priority for Groulx is giving her members the tools they need to help deal with the rollercoaster of emotions they’ve been experiencing during the pandemic.
In a bid to bring mental health issues to the forefront, OCOBIA and small business advocate Michael Wood are hosting a virtual roundtable on Feb. 23 in conjunction with the city, Ottawa Public Health and the Royal Ottawa.
“What a small business owner has gone through over the past year certainly affects their mental health,” Groulx says.
In addition to her new job with OCOBIA, Groulx also works with Invest Ottawa to promote the Digital Main Street program, a federally funded initiative aimed at helping Ontario brick-and-mortar businesses beef up their online presence.
It makes for a busy life, but the mother of two teenagers says it’s all part of life on the front lines of commerce during a pandemic.
“There is no 9-to-5 anymore,” she says. “There’s so much to do.”