Turn some Ottawa 2017 events into annual festivities, Watson urges

Picnic on the Bridge
The Interprovincial Picnic on the Bridge was one of the events hosted by the Ottawa 2017 Bureau to mark Canada's 150th anniversary in the nation's capital.

After a landmark year for Ottawa’s economy marked by dozens of big-ticket events to celebrate the country’s sesquicentennial birthday, Mayor Jim Watson is hoping the city will capitalize on that momentum in 2018.

“There’s no better time to be living in Ottawa,” he told the audience during a speech at Ottawa's Economic Outlook conference on Thursday.

Mr. Watson said that, in part to avoid the “2017 hangover,” the city is looking at carrying over a number of the events that took place this year.

“We have to figure out what we can do, what we can afford, and start implementing those ideas,” said Mr. Watson. Two events that are well-poised to be repeated are the Ottawa Welcomes the World series, which partnered with embassies to put on cultural events, and the Interprovincial Picnic on the Bridge, he said.

How to pay for that, though, is an open question.

“That’s the challenge,” said Mr. Watson. While a proposed hotel tax would raise more money for Ottawa Tourism, the funds are primarily earmarked to promote the city as a travel destination.

“The hotel levy brings in additional money for tourism, and they’ll use some of that,” he said. “But we’ll have to go to the private sector.”

Later, Mr. Watson downplayed criticism that the city’s draft budget puts too tight of a squeeze on infrastructure spending. The mayor had a terse Twitter exchange this week with some city councillors who are pushing for the city to raise property taxes above the two per cent cap that Mr. Watson campaigned on.

“It just doesn’t make any sense. We have to live within our means in our own household,” he told reporters following his speech.

“I have to decide whether I’m going to get a new car or get my roof fixed next year. I’m not going to do both because I can’t afford it. And I think that same philosophy has to be present at City Hall. We can’t be all things to all people.”

Looking to LeBreton

Thursday’s event also included a speech by Robert Black and Rick Daviss, who were involved in the deal to bring a brand new arena to downtown Edmonton.

The pair drew parallels with the much-discussed plan for Lebreton Flats and spoke about the success of public-private partnership agreements and the economic boom the new building brought to downtown Edmonton.

A rendering of the proposed LeBreton Flats redevelopment.

They suggested the involvement of the private sector can help bring focus to large development projects.

“In the public sector, because of the reality of having so many priorities, there is a tendency to water down vision in order to spread the money further and allow for more things to happen,” Mr. Black said.

With Ottawa’s major arena project on the horizon, city officials are hoping to follow in Edmonton’s – rather than Calgary’s – footsteps. Negotiations for a new arena broke down in Calgary in recent months, leading to a sizeable rift between the owners of the Calgary Flames and politicians.

Edmonton, though, is held up by many as an example of success when it comes to government-assisted projects. Mr. Black and Mr. Daviss highlighted a nine-day concert run by Garth Brooks as evidence of the arena’s success. That run alone, they said, brought north of $43 million in economic activity for the area around the rink.

Rogers Place
Rogers Place in Edmonton. (Image via the City of Edmonton)

They argued the arena revitalized the area, with several major projects still slated to break ground.

However, Edmonton’s project also included cost overruns that forced the city to chip in an extra $55 million.

That’s something municipal officials in Ottawa are looking to avoid.

The city is not a direct partner in the National Capital Commission’s negotiations with the Ottawa Senators-backed RendezVous Lebreton consortium that’s proposing to redevelop the 53-acre vacant property west of downtown.

However, Mr. Watson and city manager Steve Kanellakos are participating in the negotiations. Last month, city council approved several “principles” for municipal officials that included “ensur(ing) the city and its taxpayers are protected” if RendezVous LeBreton asks to access any municipal financing mechanism.

The annual Ottawa Economic Outlook luncheon is co-hosted by OBJ and the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.