New nightlife commissioner will need to ‘dream big,’ one industry expert says

Ottawa nightlife

As the City of Ottawa prepares to open the office of the nightlife commissioner and recruit for the new role early in 2024, one Ottawa entertainment industry expert has high hopes for the right candidate but says the job will be “a tall order.”

This past spring, the city announced a plan to improve nightlife, including a three-year Nightlife Economy Action Plan and the appointment of a nightlife commissioner. The plan could also lead to the creation of a virtual nightlife resource centre, new mid-sized venues, and a city-wide nightlife and security plan. 

The city will be recruiting for the commissioner role, coined the “night mayor,” in January.

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In a statement to OBJ, Emmanuel Rey, officer of economic development with the city, said recruitment will commence after council’s approval of the 2024 city budget and that the city is currently developing a job description and recruitment strategy for the position. 

The right candidate, though, will be more than just a resume, said Erin Benjamin, CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association.

The “complex role” will require a candidate with strong relationships throughout the nightlife community, she said. But the “nuance” of the role could require a different hiring process for the city, she added.

“I wouldn’t know what’s involved in picking this candidate, but from my perspective as an industry leader and expert, someone with real field experience would be sought after. But we might need to slice and dice that a bit, because the range of experience on paper could be broad but also nuanced,” said Benjamin. “It might be a tall order, but it would be wonderful to look toward the unusual suspects. Who has those skills that could be impactful?

“It could be someone who is unknown to the city at this point or who comes from a different sector but has the ability to bring people together.”

An ideal commissioner would be able to collaborate and determine what a thriving nightlife economy could look like in Ottawa, she said.

“When we unpack what building a strategy will look like, it will include all of these incredibly important organizations and the right person is someone who can bring these folks together,” she explained. “They will need to consult and listen and dream big.”

Dreaming may certainly be a big part of the role, Benjamin said, especially for the first commissioner. The “uncharted territory” will require a healthy serving of imagination, she explained.

“Vision is going to be a huge component and imagining how Ottawa … can build its own customized nightlife, which is the exciting part of it,” she said. 

Among the strategies designed to bring more late-night concerts and events to the city are proposals to address the bureaucratic barriers that make some of these events difficult to hold in the first place. The phase one recommendations include a review of city bylaws, policies, procedures and services to simplify and improve efficiency “for both the city and nightlife businesses.” That includes streamlining approval, licensing and permitting processes for nightlife activities with, for example, new online application systems.

Supporters of the plan have said that Ottawa already has a nightlife scene, it just needs a boost. 

Michelle Groulx, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA), was involved in the consultation and said she “fully endorses” the plan. After the announcement, she said Ottawa’s night entertainment scene is alive and well but needs more support.

“Obviously, everyone hears that we’re a 9-5 government town. Now, looking at our downtown, it’s not just dead at night – it’s all day and all night now,” Groulx said in May. “But if you have lived in Ottawa for long enough, you know that Ottawa has had quite a vibrant nightlife.”

Ottawa has plenty of nightlife and entertainment just “waiting to be tapped,” Benjamin agrees.

“We have to find that person who really understands why harnessing things like live music can be so economically, socially and culturally powerful,” she said. “I’m so excited because it’s … all there right in front of us. I hope the sky’s the limit.”

To navigate the task of revitalizing Ottawa’s nightlife, Benjamin said the candidate will need to be patient and open-minded — but so will the rest of the Ottawa community as the new commissioner embarks on the journey.

“This is a long-term process, it’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s okay. We need to be patient and mindful of that,” she said. “We will be able to see early wins and measure success, but I do think the right person will be able to walk arm and arm through that together with the community.”

It’s important not to “scare away” candidates who see the work that the commissioner will face, she added. 

“We shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook, but don’t scare people by creating an unrealistic situation. This city is full of amazing people, so we’ve got to hit the ground running and be open to the fact that we’re building the airplane while flying it here,” she explained.

That said, referring to the position as “night mayor” needs to stop, she said. 

“If we use the term ‘night mayor,’ people won’t take it seriously. Anyone who makes fun of this is shortsighting themselves,” she said. “I’m glad it put a smile on people’s faces, but this is serious business. Ottawa is a city staring at the horizon of its own success. This is an opportunity for us to compete and shine and we need to treat it as such.”

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