Ottawa is “turning a corner” in its bid to tackle pressing economic issues such as the revitalization of the downtown core and the rejuvenation of the ByWard Market – but those problems will take time and a collective will to solve, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe says.
“We are facing a lot of challenges right now,” Sutcliffe said Thursday after an economic development brainstorming session with more than 125 business and academic leaders at Bayview Yards.
“I think Ottawa’s been through a lot in the last couple of years. But I think there is a feeling that we’re turning a corner and that all of this represents an opportunity for us.”
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During the four-hour event at the home of Invest Ottawa, participants heard from speakers such as Gatineau Mayor France Bélisle and broke out into groups to drill deeper into four main topics: developing and marketing the economies of Ottawa and Gatineau as a single region; bringing an NHL-calibre arena to downtown Ottawa; revitalizing the ByWard Market; and attracting and retaining the best talent in the region.
Sutcliffe said building a stronger economy will help generate the resources needed to take on other challenges such as a lack of affordable housing, adding it’s up to all residents to play their part and contribute to making objectives such as the ByWard Market’s revival a reality.
“We’re not going to build a better city because one person gets up every day with that as their objective,” he said in an interview with OBJ.
“It’s going to take the entire community getting behind this. So I was really energized and inspired by the fact that there are so many people who care about the future of the city and want to contribute and want to help and want to see change happen and want to make a difference.”
Still, the former broadcaster offered few specifics on how the city plans to address the issues at the heart of the summit’s agenda.
Sutcliffe said the event was designed to be an “idea-generating exercise” that will serve as a springboard for future discussions aimed at coming up with concrete solutions.
“We’re going to take the best ideas and try to see what we can do moving forward,” he said.
While numerous studies, for example, have suggested various approaches for making the ByWard Market safer and more vibrant, Sutcliffe said much more work needs to be done before an official strategy for reimagining one of Ottawa’s most popular tourism districts can be developed.
“I need to get a better sense of what some of the ideas were and what the consensus was,” he said, adding the city needs to “engage with a lot of other people who care about the future” of the Market.
“This is a multi-step process,” Sutcliffe added. “Today was about trying to stimulate some innovative thinking, some thinking outside the box, getting some ideas together and start reimagining the future.”
While revitalizing the Market was a key plank in the new mayor’s election platform, he said the downtown core as a whole needs fresh thinking as the shift to remote work during the pandemic has hollowed out office towers and shuttered businesses that relied on a daily influx of 9-to-5 workers to pay their bills.
“I think we have to continue to get the right people around the table and think about what the solutions are going to be,” Sutcliffe said.
“Ultimately, what everybody wants is for there to be people downtown. There are so many different pieces to that. I don’t think it’s one answer, but I think it’s a bunch of things that are going to bring more people to downtown Ottawa, even if there are fewer employees working in downtown Ottawa on a daily basis for the next few years.”
The rise of remote work also means it’s no longer necessary for employees to live in the same city as their employer, Sutcliffe noted, meaning local business and government leaders need to work harder than ever to make Ottawa a compelling destination for world-class talent.
“I think it all comes down to quality of life and Ottawa being a great place to live and work,” he said. “People are making choices about where they live based on different criteria from how they chose in the past.”