Op-ed: Splintered Ottawa chambers need one strong voice

chambers
From left, Ottawa Chamber of Commerce chairperson Ian Sherman with Mayor Jim Watson and West Ottawa Board of Trade chairperson Mischa Kaplan at city hall last month with a signed MOU from the two chambers. (Photo courtesy of the City of Ottawa).

Last September, I wrote a piece for this newspaper in which I suggested that Ottawa is currently undergoing a positive transformation which will fundamentally alter the character of the city. There is an optimism that seems to have gripped this city, and it is visible across a broad variety of areas. 

In the case of education, our city’s post-secondary institutes continue to grow and innovate. In the field of public transit, our politicians seem to finally be making progress, with the upcoming opening of the LRT having the potential to transform the way Ottawa residents travel and connect with each other. In the case of our growing technology sector, we punch well above our weight, and the oft-cited success of Shopify is but one example of a thriving and dynamic tech sector. In terms of city growth, our urban centre is constantly evolving, and our suburban regions are bursting with new development and energy.

We are also fortunate to have an ambitious and, more importantly, consistent city council that values development and collaboration.

But despite all this positive energy, Ottawa remains fractured in terms of its approach to economic development and business advocacy. 

Unlike other large Canadian cities, Ottawa currently has three separate chambers of commerce (the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, West Ottawa Board of Trade and Orléans Chamber of Commerce), each of which have their own unique missions, organizational structures and member-led priorities. While these three chambers have collaborated extensively over the past year on a variety of events and initiatives, such a system is less than ideal for truly impacting the direction of our city’s business sector.

With three different organizations working independently, there is an inevitable loss of efficiency and organizational impact. This is the case not just with the work these organizations do, but with their reach. 

Take, for example, the fact that the combined membership of these three organizations is roughly 1,500, which is an incredibly small number considering that the size of Ottawa’s economy is estimated at somewhere between $40 billion and $60 billion. 

While it is hard to find exact figures on the number of registered businesses in Ottawa, my own estimate (based on some number-crunching of Statistics Canada figures) is that there are roughly 35,000 corporations in the Ottawa area, which would mean that the current “capture rate” or market penetration rate for chamber membership in the city is just above four per cent. Is this a good number?

Well, consider that Edmonton – a city roughly the same size as Ottawa in terms of population – has a chamber membership in excess of 2,200. Moreover, the U.S.-based Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives estimates that average market penetration rates for chambers south of the border is about 32 per cent – significantly higher than Ottawa’s four per cent. These figures suggest that Ottawa’s chamber network is not having the impact it should.

In my mind, this is unacceptable, and it is explained by one sad but undeniable fact: The business advocacy community has failed to convince the majority of Ottawa-based business leaders that a chamber membership is an invaluable business tool. In other words, Ottawa’s three chambers have not delivered a compelling enough value proposition to prospective clients (in this case, those businesses that have chosen not to become a member of one of the three chambers). 

Despite all the incredible work done by these chambers, the reality is that this work has not been enough to convince the majority of Ottawa businesses that the positive aspects of chamber membership far outweigh the financial costs.

Considering this, it seems clear to me what the mission of Ottawa’s business advocacy community must be as we move forward as a city: to convince the bulk of businesses here in Ottawa that the city’s private sector needs a united voice, and that this united voice can most effectively be developed through a robust and united chamber of commerce.

Ottawa’s private-sector community is one of the most vibrant and dynamic business communities in this country, and there is no question that businesses are taking a decisive lead in helping to foster the tremendous growth of our city. But to truly drive change in a way that helps our businesses thrive, these voices and efforts need to be brought together in a united front.

To this end, the boards of directors of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the West Ottawa Board of Trade have now signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to consolidate the operations and structures of the two organizations. On June 5 and 6, these chambers will put the issue to their memberships for a vote. If the members respond positively to this initiative and the two organizations can strike a path to move forward together, a new chapter will be born in the history of Ottawa’s business community.

Make no mistake, the stakes are high. Some of the most pressing challenges related to the economic development of this city desperately require a strong and united voice from business, be it the LeBreton Flats redevelopment, interprovincial trade and travel between Ottawa and Gatineau, the choices that City Hall makes in regards to economic development priorities or provincial-wide issues related to labour law, corporate tax rates and government regulations.

Business owners across this city should be calling on a daily basis for a strong and activist chamber that can make the voice of business heard not just in Ottawa’s City Hall, but as far as Queen’s Park and even Parliament Hill. 

Now is the time for Ottawa’s business community to shine and take a decisive leadership role in the continued transformation of this great city.

Mischa Kaplan is the CEO of Cardinal Research Group and the chair of the West Ottawa Board of Trade.