Ottawa BIAs unite for bigger voice on city issues

Ottawa’s Business Improvement Areas have formed a new advocacy group to give its member businesses an independent say on municipal issues that affect the thousands of merchants under their collective banners.

The Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas unites the city’s 19 BIAs with a formal structure. Lindsay Hugenholtz Sherk, a local business consultant, will serve as executive director.

Business Improvement Areas themselves represent the retailers and other businesses in a defined neighbourhood, using levies raised from members to fund marketing campaigns, beautification initiatives and events designed to draw customers to the area.

Mark Kaluski, chair of the Quartier Vanier BIA as well as OCOBIA, says that while there’s often competition between businesses in neighbouring BIAs, the city’s retail sector as a whole can benefit from having a unified voice.

Mark Kaluski
Mark Kaluski, chair of the Quartier Vanier BIA. File photo

“We're all competing for the same retail dollar, but we realized that there's a lot we could do together and there's a lot of overlapping issues that we need help with. So banding together would make us stronger,” Kaluski tells OBJ.

Collectively, the city’s BIAs represent some 6,400 businesses in Ottawa. Kaluski says that despite having a larger membership than the newly merged Ottawa Board of Trade, BIAs and their businesses have felt like the “ignored child” when it comes to policy discussions in the city.

Despite feelings of neglect, OCOBIA is looking to build a better relationship with city staff.

“We want to be partners with the city,” Kaluski says. “We can help with the tourism agenda, we can help the economic development agenda. And in return what we want is some consultation when issues come up that will affect our members.”

OCOBIA 2.0

This isn’t the first attempt at creating a unified voice for the city’s BIAs. After promising to improve communication with BIAs in his 2010 election campaign, Mayor Jim Watson led the creation of a regular forum for BIAs and city economic development officials the following year. The group was first dubbed the Greater Ottawa BIA Association but later transitioned to use the OCOBIA acronym as well – though that group was a “council” rather than a “coalition.”

Kaluski says the original coalition fell apart a few years ago due to “dissension” among some of the BIAs. He says factions formed within the group as BIAs failed to find common ground on policy issues and meetings would devolve into inappropriate behaviour.

“Two years ago was when everything went to hell,” Kaluski recalls. “I was just the incoming chair at that point. So I stopped all the meetings with the mayor and city staff and I decided to get our house in order.”

A few voices from those days have since moved on, Kaluski says. The new OCOBIA will focus on citywide issues rather than neighbourhood-specific problems as well, in an attempt to avoid in-fighting.

The other difference this time around is independence from the city in OCOBIA’s operations. Tensions arose previously when the BIA members took a position that went against what city staff were recommending; with a formal organization, an independently sourced budget and an executive director in place, Kaluski believes the group can better advocate for its members this time around.

“Autonomy is what’s the name of the game,” he says. “We really want to take ownership of our own agenda and our own platform.”

Mayor Watson said through a spokesperson Friday that he was supportive of OCOBIA’s mission, and had already met with the organization’s board last month.

OBOT secures new partners

Elsewhere Friday, the Ottawa Board of Trade was also feeling collaborative.

The organization signed an agreement with its two francophone counterparts in the National Capital Region, the Chambre de commerce de Gatineau and the Regroupement des gens d’affaires de la capitale nationale.

The three groups will work together on regional economic development initiatives, plan networking events and hold an annual joint directors meeting.