Mayoral candidates tackle Parliament Hill reno, Airbnb questions at Ottawa tourism debate

Parliament Hill

Ottawa’s mayoral challengers clashed over how to boost public safety in the ByWard Market and the need to regulate online accommodation platforms such as Airbnb during an all-candidates debate Monday at the Shaw Centre.

The Ottawa Board of Trade hosted the 90-minute event, which focused on how the candidates would promote and grow the city’s tourism industry. The seven contenders at the table discussed issues ranging from boosting attendance at local festivals to regulating Airbnb and its competitors.

Among the most contentious topics was safety in the ByWard Market, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

Candidate Bruce McConville told the audience of about 80 people he would increase police foot patrols in the neighbourhood and push to get rid of emergency shelters in the area, saying they did nothing to solve the underlying issues that cause homelessness. Instead, he called on the city to invest more in affordable housing for low-income residents to get people off the street.

“Funding more and more shelter beds that are unnecessary is kind of like putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and not worrying about people jumping off at the top,” he said. “We can do much better.”

Fellow contender Ahmed Bouragba rejected the idea of beefing up the police presence in the Market. He told the crowd more foot patrols “will never bring safety,” and instead pushed for more spending on social programs to help drug addicts and others who use shelters.

“That’s what brings prosperity, and that’s the key for tourism to boom,” he said.

What to do with Airbnb?

The mayoral contenders also sparred over how best to regulate home-sharing services such as Airbnb.

Incumbent mayor Jim Watson said the city has already ensured Airbnb hosts pay their fair share of taxes with its new four per cent levy that debuted in August. He also said he’s asked city staff to draft new regulations that would make it illegal for hosts to use properties as guest accommodations on a full-time basis, adding the city hopes to have a proposal ready in the first quarter of 2019.

“When you move into a neighbourhood, you expect to move next door to a family or a single (person) or a couple, not a hotel room that changes every couple of days,” Watson said. “We have to level the playing field. I have no objection to someone occasionally renting out a room or a house or an apartment or a condo, but it can’t be done as a full-time business.”

Fellow mayoral contender Moises Schachtler countered that the city should let the free market dictate who can operate tourist lodgings and how often they’re allowed to open.

"If we want to welcome tourists to come to our city, we need to give them as many different opportunities to have a place to sleep."

“If we want to welcome tourists to come to our city, we need to give them as many different opportunities to have a place to sleep,” he said. “We can’t regulate these things.”

Candidate Joey Drouin, meanwhile, said he would increase the Airbnb tax to six per cent, with the extra money going toward affordable housing.

The Parliament Hill problem

Although it’s not under municipal jurisdiction, Parliament Hill also became a major talking point when Steve Ball of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association asked candidates how the city would continue to draw people to the area once the renovation of Centre Block’s exterior begins later this year. The billion-dollar project is expected to keep the capital’s most famous structure covered in scaffolding for a decade.

Watson conceded it will be a “challenge” to ensure tourists keep flocking to the Hill. But he said it will also be an opportunity to focus attention on other nearby attractions such as the newly renovated Government Conference Centre across the street, which will house the Senate for the next 10 years starting in January, and the refurbished West Block, which will become the temporary home of the House of Commons and will include a new visitors centre.

"It's the most photographed building in our city, and it can't just be a grey tarp that's thrown up there."

The mayor also said he’s met with federal officials to urge them to drape Centre Block with a fabric “trompe-l'oeuil” featuring a rendering of the iconic building.  

“It’s the most photographed building in our city, and it can’t just be a grey tarp that’s thrown up there,” he said.

Candidate Michel Pastien called for a “100-year infrastructure plan” that featured “innovative and different” elements to attract visitors to other places besides Parliament Hill. Drouin used the question to promote his vision for one cross-border municipality in Ottawa-Gatineau, saying a single tourism organization representing the entire region would give the capital more clout to promote itself on the world stage.

“I think that would give us an increased competitive advantage in the region and allow us to get more direct flights to our beautiful and underused international airport,” he said.

Pushing unique events

The candidates also pushed a variety of other plans to attract more visitors to the capital.

Watson touted the city’s track record of hosting major events under his leadership, such as the Ottawa 2017 celebrations that helped draw a record 11 million tourists to the region.

The mayor also said he’d fight to allow professionals other than police officers provide security at festivals, arguing it would save money that could be put toward promotional campaigns. He also said he would cut patio fees at restaurants and bars by 50 per cent and create an “attractions passport” giving Grade 6 graduates and exchange students free entrance to local museums.

McConville, meanwhile, called for more “paddle and peddle” programs to lure eco-tourists to the region’s waterways and bike paths, while Pastien suggested more “inspired public art” such as the Oscar Peterson statue near the National Arts Centre as well as canoe rides on the canal featuring actors in period costumes. Drouin proposed a single bus pass that would allow tourists to shuttle back and forth between local museums.

The event initially drew eight of the 12 registered candidates for mayor, but that number quickly dropped to seven when Bernard Couchman abruptly walked out in protest before the debate began. He claimed the organizers had failed acknowledge the debate would take place on unceded Algonquin territory and refused to participate.

Among the no-shows was former city councillor Clive Doucet, who told organizers he was unable to attend due to a previous commitment.