This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Business Journal newsmagazine as a part of OBOT Connect.
The promise of light rail is in the air – but Orléans business leaders say that without a major east-end employer, the trains won’t be enough to keep the borough up to speed with the rest of Ottawa.
The Orléans workforce is highly educated and predominantly bilingual, says the riding’s MP, Andrew Leslie. As such, many work for the federal government and commute elsewhere, such as downtown or the new DND headquarters at the Carling Campus.
While the standard of living in Orléans is good, Leslie says what’s missing are jobs that match the demographics of the ward – a challenge being tackled by the community’s business and political leaders, many of whom see a compelling case for the federal government to establish a larger east-end presence.
“The vast majority of new jobs (in Orléans) are still created at the local level by small businesses,” Leslie says. “We need a federal building or federal jobs to be in Orléans because we have one of the highest concentrations of federal workers.”
One of the issues caused by this imbalance is seen every day, says Jasmine Brown, executive director of the Heart of Orléans BIA. A study by the BIA’s Balance Orléans Task Force found around 80 per cent of rush hour traffic between Orléans and the rest of Ottawa is leaving Orléans for work.
“It’s basically a bedroom community,” says Brown. “There’s no major employment hub.”
The task force was established earlier in 2018. Now, the newly amalgamated Ottawa Board of Trade is addressing the same issues as part of its larger Capital Build Task Force, which Brown is also involved in.
With funding for the second phase of Ottawa’s light rail line secured, including stops at Trim Road, Place d’Orléans, Jeanne d’Arc and Montreal Road at the Canotek Business Park, Brown says it’s time to mobilize and address the need for a major employer in Orléans.
Yes, light rail may help relieve some pressure on the highway, says Doug Feltmate, chair of the BIA’s economic development group, but the imbalance won’t go away. Instead, the train will run full in one direction and close to empty the other way.
“Building LRT will help, but it has to be done in conjunction with a further development plan,” says Feltmate. “You need a catalyst.”
Balancing east and west
For many, that catalyst is a federal government presence, either an entire department or a workspace – the federal government has been experimenting with coworking-style workspaces meant to accommodate people from various departments.
The Balance Orléans study found that there are less than 50 federal employees working in Orléans, compared to more than 13,000 in the west end – and out of more than 130,000 overall in the National Capital Region.
So, if many of those 130,000 employees live in Orléans, what has historically prevented the government from setting up shop in the east end?
Broadly speaking, Shawn Hamilton – a senior vice-president at real estate brokerage firm CBRE, and a task force member – says Orléans has traditionally been residential. The development of a tech hub in the west created somewhat of a vacuum, he adds.
In recent years, procurement officials have typically required any new government office space be within 600 metres of rapid transit. There’s currently development land available at Trim Road and elsewhere along the eastern part of the LRT line. Developers have plans ready for the east end, says Feltmate. But they’ve so far been unable to capture the attention of federal officials.
“We’ve just never seen any interest in federal employment coming in this direction,” he says. “All the developers want is an opportunity to bid. And that’s been taken off the table.”
Whether the eastern light-rail extension, scheduled to be completed in 2022, will bring the government to Orléans remains to be seen. Public Services and Procurement Canada says an east-end flexible government workspace is “being discussed.
Leslie says he’s “confident” the government will set up shop in Orléans, but doesn’t know when.
“It will happen, but when and how ... I don’t yet know,” says Leslie.
Feltmate is less sure – he says he’s seen previous promises, but no results.
Nevertheless, members of the new task force say this year’s amalgamation of the city’s three chambers of commerce has the potential to amplify the voice of Orléans.
“I think we are setting the stage for a long term balancing of east versus west,” says Hamilton.
“We just need to take a few years now to change behaviors, educate people, and drive that development to the east end.”