‘It’s been a hell of a three years’: Sueling Ching

sueling ching
Editor's Note

This interview with Sueling Ching, president and CEO of the Ottawa Board of Trade, appears in the 2023 Welch LLP Business Growth Survey. To download the full report, visit https://www.ottawabusinesssurveyreport.ca/

Q: From what you’ve observed in your role at the Ottawa Board of Trade, what are the barriers to growth facing Ottawa businesses?

The number-one barrier to growth that companies have been identifying in the last eight years — and that has been exacerbated by the pandemic — is access to talent and access to labour. Ottawa companies are facing the same issues as all companies: rising cost of doing business, supply chain issues, et cetera. But what’s special about Ottawa is the greater uncertainty around the future of the downtown core, which is the heart and soul of our culture and our economy. 

Businesses might not see that as being specific to them, but it is. It’s a barrier to business when it comes to small businesses, particularly those in the hardest-hit sectors who have taken on copious amounts of debt and who were disproportionately impacted during the pandemic, the occupation last year, and with continued uncertainty in our economy. 

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Q: With that said, what are the opportunities for growth for local businesses?

I mean, we can’t ignore the fact that we’re the nation’s capital. Because of that, we do have a strong public-sector presence. In addition to that, we have a strong presence in high-growth industries, including the tech sector. We have world-renowned health and education facilities, which have amenities that we would not otherwise have access to. So all that creates an engine for business growth and innovation. 

I would also say that, as the nation’s capital, we have a strong tourism contingent. Tourism is the front door to every other form of economic development. If somebody comes here to visit, then we may be on their radar to live here, to go to school here, to invest or start a business here. 

We have strong collaboration among economic development stakeholders and a strong cultural base that is attractive. That includes our arts and culture scene, our music scene, and our sports scene. We also have our own international airport and, people don’t know this, but the high-frequency rail is coming to Ottawa. It will go from Montreal through Ottawa to Toronto. So we have a lot of things on the horizon and a lot of infrastructure investments taking place right now in Ottawa that are going to come to fruition.

Q: What can the business community expect from the new municipal government over the next year or so?

During the election process, we were really calling on candidates to prioritize not just what the government will do, but how they will go about doing it and how they will behave in a respectful, consultative, consensus-building way. I would say that, to date, even though it’s early, they’ve been able to demonstrate that. They have demonstrated that they are committed to working collaboratively to build an inclusive and sustainable growth agenda for the City of Ottawa, to leverage our greatest opportunities, including creating foundations to elevate our quality of life as it relates to affordability, health care, housing, an integrated transit system, and a vibrant downtown. 

Q: What issues will you be emphasizing with governments at all levels this year?

What we’ll be emphasizing at the board of trade is for the government to create a competitive and predictable environment in which businesses can grow through priority-setting policy and programs. That’s the high level. What we expect is for the levels of government to work collaboratively with each other and other business and community leaders to fulfill their responsibility to create a competitive, predictable environment in which businesses can grow. Committing to a growth agenda and leveraging the ingenuity and resilience of businesses will drive community prosperity and position us to tackle our biggest challenges, including climate, health and inclusion. 

The other thing I’m going to say is that we expect governments to conduct themselves in a way that builds public trust and protects the democratic process upon which our country is built. 

In general terms, I’ll say it’s been a hell of a three years. I started this job the same day that the pandemic started. Prior to that we were talking about the pace of change, the global economy and planning for the future. Then, all of a sudden, all those things that protected us went away. Now those things that protected us in the past, like the downtown presence of the federal government, have become our Achilles heel. 

The business community has demonstrated a tremendous amount of resilience and innovation throughout the pandemic. Now we’re in a position where we can leverage the lessons that we’ve learned. I feel like I’ve been saying this over and over, but this gives us an opportunity and, frankly, a responsibility, to build forward better in a way that we were maybe never motivated to do without a pandemic. How can we integrate climate action, economic impact and inclusivity into the decisions that we’re making going forward? How do we reimagine the downtown so that it is vibrant and diverse and can attract young people to our city as a multifaceted area instead of just a business district? Those are decisions that we may be forced to make but that also provide an opportunity for us to build, not just a city, but a region to its fullest potential. 

It’s complex, so we’re making sure that we’re working together so we can optimize our opportunities and to understand that we are competing in a global economy. As the nation’s capital, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to be leaders right now. 

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