Somerset Village BIA plans merger with Centretown to better tackle downtown issues

Somerset Centretown
When Somerset Street closes down for pedestrians, local restaurants like Ivan Gedz's Union Local 613 benefit from the extra patio space.

After overseeing one of Ottawa’s smallest BIAs for a tumultuous three years, chair and business owner Ivan Gedz is looking forward to the opportunities that joining forces with a larger BIA might bring to Somerset Village.

“One of the cool things of having a small BIA is you can do whatever you want,” he laughed. “But the flip side to that is, there’s no money to do what we want.”

Gedz, owner of Ottawa restaurant Union Local 613 and volunteer chair of the Somerset Village BIA since 2019, said a plan to fold his BIA into the nearby Centretown BIA is underway. He hopes the resources and support of his BIA’s larger neighbour will provide a much-needed boost.

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The Somerset Village BIA, which covers Somerset Street West between O’Connor and Bank streets, consists of only about nine businesses. Only one position on the team operating the BIA is on payroll, said Gedz.

But despite its small size, the BIA is no stranger to some of the city’s largest issues. For example, Ottawa’s ongoing homelessness crisis is top of mind for Gedz. By combining with the Centretown BIA, he said he hopes Somerset Village can benefit from some of Centretown’s initiatives and resources.

“There’s an influx of unsheltered individuals and drug use here and in the downtown core, which isn’t necessarily something that falls into the mandate of the BIA — at least, it hasn’t historically — but speaking with the community, we recognize the importance of a shelter-first approach and wraparound services,” Gedz explained. “We’re working with the newly rebranded Centretown … because they’re really seeing a lot of the same issues.”

In addition to the social issues facing the community, the “civil-service-centric” businesses are continuing to grapple with the absence of civil servants in the downtown core, Gedz said. Apart from some professional services, the majority of businesses in Somerset Village are restaurants and food-service establishments that relied on lunch and after-work traffic from civil servants, he added.

“The change in working conditions … drastically affected the volume of business we were used to seeing before the pandemic,” said Gedz. “Coupled with an LRT service that is, frankly, a joke, it really impacts people. 

“From an environmental standpoint, it’s awesome for the carbon footprint that people work from home. But this city has been designed, with services designed, around the business model of people coming into the office. That will just have to change.”

Gedz said he doesn’t see the current situation downtown being solved any time soon. Instead, he said it is important for businesses and BIAs to adapt and find new ways to survive. 

One of his tactics involves closing down his BIA’s section of Somerset Street for regular pedestrian access and community events, he explained.

“During the pandemic, we shut the street down on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and the restaurants used the extra patio space,” said Gedz. “But we’re in discussions with local councillors … and they’re really championing the idea of pedestrianizing spaces in the city.

“We’re working on it in regards to the importance of making it a quasi-permanent situation, not just commercial services for patios, but also as a space for the community.”

Gedz has been working with ADAAWE, an Indigenous Business Hub in Somerset Village, to find ways to bring the community together and support local business. He said shutting down the streets could allow more of ADAAWE’s successful Indigenous markets to thrive.

“I would love to see them use that space, as well as artists and farmers markets. It’s all about looking for innovative ways of repurposing space within the core,” he explained. “We’re a main street, but because we’ve done it off and on for years, we think we’re appropriately set up … Doing it year-round would be lovely, but we have to start somewhere.”

By “folding into” the Centretown BIA, more resources and leadership can be made available to Somerset Village, explained Gedz, and help turn the community’s idea into a reality. Should his plan come to fruition, Gedz said he would happily take a step back and allow the young leaders at ADAAWE to take a more active leadership role.

As various BIAs across the city are planning to shift their community boundaries, Gedz said with Centretown’s “engaging operations,” he doesn’t see a downside to the merger.

“When you expand your size, there’s the potential to not maybe, as an individual, have the same voice, but we’re still talking about relatively small operations,” he said. “But (Somerset Village) doesn’t have any money, so it’s a trade-off.

“If there’s good governance, there isn’t much fear about the BIA growing in size and I feel really good about the leadership in the Centretown BIA.”

SabriNa Lemay, the recently appointed executive director of the Centretown BIA, said she is “thrilled” to be planning for the expansion to include Somerset Village.

Although our two BIAs have not officially merged, it is certainly something we are looking into. We will continue to recognize Somerset as a part of Centretown and its beautiful community,” Lemay said in an email to OBJ. “We truly believe together we are building a stronger, more interconnected community where businesses can flourish and residents can take pride in their local economy.”

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