Ottawa merchants call on city hall to boost support to small businesses

Adrienne Smith-Row headshot
Adrienne Smith-Row is the co-owner of Grove Studio in Hintonburg. Photo courtesy Adrienne Row-Smith
Editor's Note

This story has been updated to include comments from the mayor’s office.

More than 100 local businesses and organizations have signed a letter to Ottawa’s mayor and council urging the city to boost its financial support to mainstreet merchants, lobby the province for rent control measures and establish an advisory forum to address issues facing local entrepreneurs, among other recommendations.

Written by Ottawa-based photographer Adrienne Row-Smith and her business partner Hingman Leung, the open letter addressed to Mayor Mark Sutcliffe also calls on the city to provide more resources to help train small businesses in areas such as de-escalating potentially violent situations and administering naloxone in an effort to quell a rise in street harassment and drug-related violence.

The signatories, which include business owners from a range of industries and neighbourhoods, argue there is a “fundamental failure on the part of the City of Ottawa to provide small businesses with the necessary opportunities, supports, and grants” that are available in other Canadian cities. 

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“The challenges we face, including rising inflation and uncontrolled rent hikes, are threatening the existence of many valuable businesses that contribute to the unique character of Ottawa, which in turn, negatively impacts the health of our community.”

In an interview with OBJ on Wednesday, Row-Smith acknowledged that the roughly 110 businesses and organizations that signed the letter might not agree on all the recommendations or prioritize them equally. 

But she says it’s important to get a dialogue going with local political leaders on issues that threaten small businesses, and believes the letter, which was sent last week, is a good start.

Row-Smith said she was still awaiting a response from city hall as of Wednesday afternoon, but remains optimistic the effort will bear fruit.

“We’re just hoping that we can find a compassionate middle ground for everybody to be happy with,” she added.

In an email to OBJ on Thursday morning, a spokesperson from Sutcliffe’s office said the mayor has received the letter and plans to respond.

“As a longtime small business owner, he is very attuned to their concerns,” the email said.

Noting the recent closure of businesses such as Hintonburg’s Orange Art Gallery and neighbouring indoor skate and bike park The Yard, Row-Smith said many entrepreneurs that were hit hard by the pandemic are desperately looking for ways to keep their heads above water since programs such as CEBA have ended.

Her letter points to other Canadian cities such as Toronto and Calgary as examples of Canadian cities that have created financial support programs to help small businesses weather economic storms. 

Row-Smith said she hopes Ottawa will consider a similar approach. Many retailers, she said, are in dire need of help with upgrades to infrastructure such as stairs and bathrooms to make their businesses more accessible. 

“Now that folks are referring to the pandemic as kind of over and done with, a lot of those financial supports that were immensely helpful to folks have kind of disappeared,” said the graduate of Carleton University and Algonquin College, who opened a portrait studio and community event space near the Parkdale Market called the Grove Studio with Leung last fall. “Niche businesses are kind of being left behind.” 

Jo Masterson, one of the local entrepreneurs who signed the document, agrees.

The owner of Kitchissippi-based bakery Little Jo Berry’s says many small businesses remain saddled with debt from programs like CEBA and need immediate assistance.

“Even if your perception of COVID is COVID is over, I think the majority of small food businesses who went through COVID are just now really feeling that burden,” said Masterson, who also hosts a biweekly podcast, Business Baby, that focuses on issues facing Ottawa entrepreneurs. “You’re not doing well if you have a $100K debt from COVID. 

“I’ve been in business for eight years now, and every month I’m chasing rent. We have a huge reach in Ottawa; we’re a very recognizable brand. So for us to be experiencing that with such an established brand, I don’t know how new entrepreneurs are supposed to make it work when someone who’s been an entrepreneur for this many years is still trying to figure it out.”

Among the letter’s other recommendations is the creation of a small business advisory forum that would work together with city officials to supplement the advocacy role of Ottawa’s business improvement areas. 

The forum would be a place where merchants and community organizations “can actively and directly contribute ideas, suggestions, and feedback on policies that directly impact us,” the letter says.

“While BIAs provide differing levels of support to small businesses and communities in Ottawa, small businesses do not have a voice to influence the municipal policies and supports that fall outside the jurisdiction of BIAs, for example, municipal grants, and programs to address city-wide challenges,” it adds.

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