Opinion: Ottawa’s tractor-beam effect

The top ten reasons why people come back to O-town (or never leave)

A lot of my students over the years have told me, as they get closer to graduation, that they’re going to leave our cold-weather city as soon as they get degrees.

Then they head to better weather places like Phoenix, south Florida, L.A., San Jose, even Toronto or Vancouver. A few years later, I’ll hear a familiar voice on the Sparks Street Mall or wherever and, sure enough, they’re back. Indeed, many foreign diplomats I’ve known over the years, after they retire, have also settled in this town and some of them hail from beautiful, exotic (warm) places. Why is that?

Here are the top-ten reasons why I think Ottawa has a “rubber band” effect on people:

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1. Ottawa is a (mostly) peaceful place. When I was campaigning to bring back the Senators, Mike Ilitch (owner of the Detroit Red Wings, Little Caesars and the Detroit Tigers, and a good guy) asked me: “What’s the murder rate in Ottawa like?” I said: “About 8 to 12 people, Mike.” He asked: “Per day?”  

2. We have a stable economy with lots of job opportunities in sectors as divergent as government, technology, health care, services, tourism, real estate and education. Ottawa is a “get rich slow” type of place. Our economy doesn’t shoot up like some others but then again, it doesn’t often crater either. Even with disasters such as the (unforgivable) meltdown of Nortel, companies like RIM have been hiring like gangbusters in Ottawa since November 2009.

Why? RIM found that Ottawa was the place where they got the highest percentage of turndowns on offers they had extended to move away (to Waterloo), so they opened up shop here to take advantage of our skilled labour force.

3. You can live different lifestyles in Ottawa. Want to live in a mostly French-speaking community? Lots to choose from here. Want to live an urban existence? Choose Westboro or the Glebe or the ByWard Market or Centrepointe or … Want to live close to water? We have three enormous rivers running right through Ottawa-Gatineau and hundreds of lakes within 90 minutes. Want to live on the land and be independent? No problem, there’s an amazing amount of broad acres within the city limits: geographically, Ottawa is huge (way bigger than Toronto).

Ottawa also has a clean environment, lots of providers of organic produce and a stake in green tech that is likely to get a lot bigger. If you like the outdoors, snowboarding, camping, hiking, canoeing, kite surfing, biking, sailing, or other activities they can all be found minutes away from your front door.

4. Ottawa doesn’t measure up in all areas of Richard Florida’s creativity index, but it does enough. As a G8 capital, we have fabulous national institutions like the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the NAC, the War Museum and the recently revamped Canadian Museum of Nature. We have several privately-run theatre groups and dozens of festivals each year that are among the best in the world, including Winterlude. There is even the Ottawa Art Gallery, which houses my family’s Group of Seven art collection.

5. Ottawa is an old (for North America) northern shelf city with some great architecture (and, of course, plenty of crappy stuff too). When friends visit me from Australia, Europe or the U.S., they visit the Parliamentary precinct, the ByWard Market and the Rideau Canal. They often can’t believe what a fantastic place this is, compared to, say, Atlanta.

6. It’s a great place to bring up a family, and the kids can go to cool schools like Canterbury High School for the Arts.

7. People miss the four seasons. If you’ve never experienced a tough Canadian winter, you can’t understand how much Ottawans treasure a warm, sunny summer day. They’re like plants: they stand there and face the sun as it goes down and photosynthesize the very last light beams with their eyes.

8. Ottawa is one of the most affordable places to live while still enjoying a great deal of creature comforts and creative enterprises. It’s affordable for first-time homebuyers (try to buy a house in Vancouver, for example). It’s affordable for corporations too; they can hire great workers who don’t job-hop every two years.

9. Ottawa-Gatineau has a population of around 1.2 million people. When urban agglomerations get to that point, their city-state economies start to self-generate. Add to that four great higher education institutions (U of O, Carleton, Algonquin and Université du Québec en Outaouais) and young people can now stay here and create world-class enterprises.

We have hundreds of not-for-profits in this city, more than 30,000 private corporations and more being created every week. You can become part of something bigger than yourself, part of a team that does great things, which often creates powerful feelings of well-being in a person. It’s addictive (people feel special just for having toughed out an Ottawa winter) and will bring you back if you ever leave. It did that for me (I spent seven years in Oz, which I also loved.)

10. It’s home to the Ottawa Senators.

Professor Bruce M. Firestone is entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management; founder of the Ottawa Senators; executive director of Exploriem.org; and broker at Partners Advantage GMAC. You can read his blog at www.eqjournalblog.com.

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