Board of trade unveils ‘road map’ for downtown core, calls on governments to work together

OBOT president and CEO Sueling Ching calls on all levels of government to create a transparent plan of action for Ottawa's downtown core. (Photo by Mia Jensen)

The Ottawa Board of Trade is urging all levels of government to prioritize the city’s downtown core and to work with stakeholders to build a “road map to transformation.”

“Downtown Ottawa is the heartbeat of the region. What happens downtown has a direct and immediate impact on every business, citizen and visitor. Without a focused plan, our current trajectory will negatively impact our property tax base and ability to provide key services like police and transit,” said OBOT president and CEO Sueling Ching in a statement. 

Members of OBOT were joined Friday morning by local business leaders for a press conference held in front of the Jackson Building at 122 Bank St., one of 10 properties that the federal government plans to dispose of in the National Capital Region

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At the event, Ching said the area surrounding the building exemplified the challenges facing the downtown core. 

“Prior to the pandemic, this whole area was bustling with people,” she said. “Look around. While this building has not yet closed, we see many empty storefronts, very little foot traffic and a clear testament of a reduced office presence in the core.”

More federal buildings, in the National Capital Region and across Canada, may be offered for sale as the feds work to reduce their office footprint nationwide by 50 per cent. The federal government has also signalled its intention to reduce its portfolio of leased space.

“What happens downtown has a direct and immediate impact on every business, every citizen, and every visitor,” said Ching. 

OBOT is calling on the federal government to engage with local stakeholders to provide “real and meaningful” transitional support programs and funding as it divests of its downtown properties. Ching said all levels of government have a responsibility to cultivate “a predictable environment in which businesses can compete and grow.”

“Communication and transparency are critical,” she added.

OBOT has convened stakeholders and engaged in discussions over the past several months about the downtown, including through the Downtown Revitalization Task Force, the Mayor’s Economic Summit and the Ottawa City Building Summit. Ching said OBOT is advocating at the federal level for a national urban strategy through work with the Canadian Global Cities Council, a coalition of the largest city chambers and boards of trade from across the country.

“We recognize and commend all the great initiatives underway. We are pleased to see a deepened understanding of why a vibrant and diverse downtown Ottawa is so critical to the whole region,” said Ching. “However, the time has come for the highest level of collaboration and support from all governments and stakeholders. Immediate action is needed to avoid a further hollowing of the core and avoid reaching a point of no return.

“We cannot afford to wait and risk the devastating levels of abandonment, vacant buildings and disinvestment we’ve seen in some U.S. cities.”

On Friday, OBOT unveiled a five-pillar approach designed to create a solid foundation for economic growth. 

The pillars are:

  1. Creating affordable, walkable, amenity-rich communities
  2. Flexible and efficient regulation
  3. Public and private investment in infrastructure
  4. Supporting the growth of private and public sector employment
  5. Ensuring the safety and security of employers, residents, and tourists

“This is a rare and exciting opportunity to transform downtown and let go of what is no longer working for us,” said Ching. “Many global cities have made their commitment to recovery with significant investments in their downtowns. It’s time for us to be bold. The competition is fierce. Our businesses and citizens cannot afford to wait.”

“Over the coming weeks, we will be reaching out to our public and private economic development partners, elected officials and residents to join us as we identify the work and resources needed to support the five-pillar action plan created by our economic development committee,” said Ian Sherman, chair of the OBOT board of directors. 

Ching said OBOT will convene a downtown summit with all stakeholders this fall to provide an update on the action plan. 

Devinder Chaudhary, founder of Aiana Restaurant Collective on O’Connor Street and a member of the OBOT board, said the announcement was a “tremendous first step.”

“It’s very important to recognize the seriousness of the matter,” he told OBJ. “We don’t have a lot of time, so time is of the essence. It’s very important that all levels of government get together and devote the resources required to revive and rejuvenate the downtown for the next two or three years.”

Chaudhary added that his restaurant opened during COVID-19. While business has picked up since restrictions were lifted, the fact that federal workers have not returned has caused ongoing challenges. 

“We need a business incubator,” he said. “There are numerous ideas that can be acted upon that will bring life into the downtown core. And it’s not just nine-to-five; we need five-to-nine as well. We need more businesses, more restaurants. We need people to see downtown as a vibrant place.”

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