People on the Move: Rebecca Palmer works to amplify voice of Ottawa’s BIAs

Rebecca Palmer
Rebecca Palmer is the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas.

Rebecca Palmer is a loud, proud booster of local entrepreneurs.

The recently appointed full-time executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas believes small businesses are the lifeblood of the local economy. Yet Palmer feels many of their concerns have been falling on deaf ears, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

She hopes to help change that in her new role.

“We have all these businesses who need a voice,” says Palmer, a former law clerk who moved to the capital from Barrie about a year and a half ago. 

Business Improvement Areas 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 the area.

Officially launched late last year, OCOBIA brings the 19 BIAs in the Ottawa area under a single umbrella. It aims to provide a forum for members to share successful business practices as well as present a united front when dealing with various levels of government on policy issues. 

Collectively, the organization represents some 6,400 businesses that employ 120,000 residents ​– a larger membership, Palmer notes, than the better-known Ottawa Board of Trade. 

Many of those businesses are small storefront operations that are struggling right now as the pandemic continues to batter the economy, she adds. 

“All of our BIAs have small businesses that are hanging on by threads,” Palmer says. “(Our work is about) finding ways to help them across the board.”

Palmer spent her first few weeks on the job meeting with BIA leaders from across the city in an effort to get a better handle on the issues that matter most to them, whether it’s the need for ongoing rent relief or more effective promotional campaigns to get the message out to the public that mainstreet stores are indeed still open for business. 

While OCOBIA’s members come from a wide range of industries and vary in size from one- or two-person operations to tech firms with thousands of employees, Palmer’s goal is to find the common threads that bind them together.

“It’s really understanding what makes up each of the BIAs and finding where concerns and needs intersect and overlap,” she explains.

Before joining OCOBIA, Palmer served a brief stint as a programs manager at Startup Canada, an Ottawa-based organization that promotes entrepreneurship across the country. She also helped organize last year’s Get in the Ring event for local startups seeking funding and mentorship opportunities in a bid to scale their operations.

“It was a way that we could celebrate what’s really happening in Canada,” Palmer says. “It’s very important to me, whether you’re a mainstreet business or a large business, that we are looking on the global level to compete.”