In his first major policy announcement of the 2018 election campaign, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson promised nearly $1 million in additional support for the city’s tourism, tech, film and restaurant industries.
Speaking in front of roughly 125 supporters at Bayview Yards on Sunday, Watson said he’d direct more funding to Invest Ottawa to attract skilled workers to the city, cut the municipal fees bars and restaurants pay for patios by half and work to reduce security costs for festivals and other special events.
If re-elected to a third consecutive term as mayor, Watson said he’d also increase funding for the Ottawa Film Office as well as help the tourism sector by paving the shoulders of rural roads used as cycling routes and creating a free museum pass for children graduating from grade six and exchange students.
“We’ve made a lot of progress as a community … (but I hear stories from residents) that remind me how much work we have to do to bring economic opportunities to every community,” Watson said in his prepared remarks.
The additional funding for the Ottawa Film Office and Invest Ottawa, in addition to the forgone revenue from patio fees, would cost the city $815,000 annually, according to Watson’s campaign documents.
Adding paved shoulders to rural roads would cost approximately $95,000 per kilometre, Watson told reporters, although the price tag could be brought down by combining it with road repaving projects.
Watson did not specify how the city would pay for his economic development policies, saying instead that he’d be making an announcement on taxes in the coming weeks.
“Anything I propose, I have a cost for it and a source of revenue to pay for it,” he told reporters.
Watson spent much of his 26-minute speech highlighting major projects completed during his last two terms as mayor, including Lansdowne Park, Ottawa Arts Court, the incubator space at Bayview Yards as well as the not-quite-complete light-rail line.
“There’s a lot of activity taking place in Ottawa and it’s creating good jobs in all parts of our city,” Watson said, arguing that local politicians deserve some of the credit for Ottawa’s unemployment rate hovering around its lowest level in a generation.
“City hall has … played an important role in supporting the strong employment numbers we’ve seen. We create the (economic) environment,” Watson said.
The incumbent mayor pledged additional support for several of the city’s main business sectors, specifically promising to:
Increase municipal funding for Invest Ottawa from $4.3 million to $4.8 million. Of that, $200,000 would go towards investment and trade initiatives, while $300,000 would support the creation of a talent attraction and retention initiative aimed at filling vacancies in the tech sector – a goal the local economic development organization has already been tackling through initiatives such as its Work in Ottawa campaign. Invest Ottawa currently operates on a $10-million budget, with funding from all three levels of government. It also receives money through corporate sponsorships.
Increasing the annual budget of the Ottawa Film Office by $60,000 to $350,000, in addition to working with colleges and school boards to recruit and train film-sector workers.
Reducing the city’s patio encroachment fees paid by bars and restaurants by 50 per cent at a cost of $280,000. According to Watson, this would save the average restaurant with a patio $3,200 annually.
Creating an “attractions passports” that would give grade six graduates and exchange students free entrance to museums and other cultural institutions. The idea is that these students would visit with their families, promoting “staycations” among residents.
Press the provincial government to pass regulations that allow festival organizers to use public safety professionals – rather than police officers – at special events. If successful, Watson said an event such as Bank Street’s Glowfair Festival would save $10,000 annually.
Invest Ottawa expansion
Despite saying Invest Ottawa was “bursting at the seams” at Bayview Yards, Watson did not mention a physical expansion to the economic development agency’s space among his campaign promises.
Invest Ottawa is currently located in a 46,000-square-foot former public works garage that was redeveloped in 2016 as a hub for researchers, entrepreneurs and investors to collaborate through “happy collisions,” or impromptu conversations and networking that wouldn’t happen if all those people were located in separate facilities across the city.
Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay told OBJ earlier this year that the agency is working with local developers to come up with concept plans for an expansion. Early ideas include creating multi-use space to support Ottawa’s cultural industries and connect the 14-acre property to the adjacent light-rail station.
“For a city of our size, I’d love to see us get to a half-million square feet,” Tremblay said at the time.
When asked about an expansion on Sunday, Watson told OBJ that the expansion will be discussed at Invest Ottawa’s next board meeting and that the next term of council will lay the groundwork for the expansion.
“We’ve always planned to have (a) tower. We have the space for it,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet. We want to have all the financial plans firmly in place.”
Watson is running against 11 mayoral opponents, the most high profile of which is former city councillor Clive Doucet.
The municipal election is Oct. 22.