SoPa organizer says downtown revival is coming — and Sparks Street could be its ‘crown jewel’

Devinder Chaudhary, Scott May SoPa
Aiāna Restaurant Collective owner Devinder Chaudhary (left) and Bar Robo owner Scott May are two of the organizers of the new SoPa downtown entertainment district. File photo

Scott May sees a delicious irony in the federal civil service strike that entered its 10th day on Friday.

With union members still out on picket lines in full force, the owner of Bar Robo at Queen St. Fare says he’s currently enjoying “far and away” the busiest week at his downtown coffee, cocktail and live music venue since the pandemic began more than three years ago. 

“Every (business owner) in town is saying the same thing,” he told OBJ on Friday morning. “Everybody.”

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Striking workers who’ve been gathering at Parliament Hill and marching along Elgin Street and other downtown thoroughfares have been streaming into the food hall near Bank Street in huge numbers, May explains, creating the kind of buzz the venue hasn’t felt since COVID drove downtown office workers out of their cubicles in early 2020.

The amazing thing, he added, is that it’s all because of a walkout in which the right to work from home is one of the employees’ biggest demands.

“We should thank the head of the union who called the strike,” May said of Public Service Alliance of Canada national president Chris Aylward. “He’s gotten … more federal workers downtown than anybody else ever could since COVID.”

At the same time, however, May can’t help but feel a sense of foreboding. The good times he and other downtown merchants have been experiencing for the past week won’t last, he says, if a universal work-from-home policy for federal employees becomes entrenched.

“We’re open during weekdays to – let’s call a spade a spade – it’s to service the downtown office workers,” he said. “There isn’t a huge population of residents downtown – certainly not enough to sustain the vast majority of businesses. So if we’re down to three days a week that the downtown is populated … our business is correspondingly down 40 per cent.”

Most restaurants and bars operate on “razor-thin” margins even when things are going well, May said, adding that rising inflation and the recent minimum-wage hike are putting yet more pressure on the hospitality sector.

“It would be hard for us to manage a four per cent dip in business, let alone 40,” he said. 

“If downtown is allowed to fail, we’re not going to be here next time you come down. Just take a stroll down Bank Street – you’ll see two, three, four, five stores per block sitting empty with for-lease signs. No one is beating a path to open a restaurant downtown right now or a coffee shop or anything else.”

Still, May said he sees signs of hope for a downtown revival. 

Along with Devinder Chaudhary and Joe Thottungal, the owners of nearby restaurants Aiāna and Thali, May is one of the catalysts behind the new SoPa – short for “south of Parliament” – entertainment district.

A play on Manhattan’s SoHo district, the area is bounded by Parliament Hill to the north, Somerset Street to the south, Elgin Street to the east and Lyon Street to the west. SoPa organizers are looking to create special branding and launch events aimed at turning the neighbourhood into a go-to destination for foodies and anyone looking to have fun on weekends or after five o’clock. 

Among the activities the group is sponsoring is the Great Downtown Scavenger Hunt on May 13. May said it’s just one example of the “concrete” measures SoPa’s organizers are taking to breathe new life into the core.

“The downtown needs stuff like that,” he added.

Since it was announced earlier this year, SoPa has been the target of plenty of skepticism and ridicule on social media and beyond. CBC sketch comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes lampooned the concept with a segment that featured a riff on rapper Jay-Z’s hit Empire State of Mind, in which the 22 Minutes host described SoPa as being “just like New York’s hip and trendy SoHo – minus the hipness and trendiness.”

May is well aware of the jokes and criticism. His response? Bring it on.

“People are talking about it,” he said. “People made fun of the name. I don’t care – it’s just a name. (This Hour Has 22 Minutes) laughed at SoPa. Any city would love that kind of publicity.”

The longtime entrepreneur said other efforts to revitalize downtown are making strides as well. 

For example, he’s a fan of the proposed Nightlife Economy Action Plan, a three-year blueprint for boosting the club and restaurant scene that goes to the city’s finance and corporate services committee next week. 

Among other things, the plan calls for the creation of a new commissioner – dubbed the “night mayor” – who would act as a conduit between bar and club owners and city regulators to help grow Ottawa’s after-dark scene. 

May, who jokingly volunteered to take on the role himself, said it’s high time that municipal officials worked together with business owners to help eliminate red tape and smooth sources of friction between residents and the hospitality industry such as noise disputes.

“It’s a question of bringing all the stakeholders in place,” he said. “There’s a lot of regulatory and community issues that exist at night that people just don’t want to deal with.”

The plan also proposes that the city step up efforts to build a 1,500- to 2,000-seat music and event space to make Ottawa more of a “destination of choice” for artists looking for a mid-sized venue. 

Pointing out that the National Arts Centre and the Bronson Centre already exist, May said he’s not “100 per cent convinced” the city needs another stage of that magnitude.

“The performing artists that are skipping over Ottawa aren’t doing it because the venue’s not there,” he said. “We need to work harder on making Ottawa a music city.”

May sees Sparks Street as an ideal place to foster a more dynamic entertainment district. He envisions a string of live music venues on the pedestrian-only thoroughfare, along the lines of Nashville’s famed Beale Street.

But music is just part of his vision for Sparks. May lists a myriad of “cool stuff” – from farmers’ markets and three-on-three basketball tournaments to chalk-art festivals and vintage clothing stores – that could potentially be part of the street’s mix.

“I don’t know any tourist that’s going to come to visit Ottawa to go stay in Orléans,” he said. “The downtown core’s vitality is critical to this city and our tourism industry. If we’re gonna talk the talk, we’ve gotta walk the walk.

“I look at Lansdowne. That space is dynamic and fun about 20 days a year when there’s a sporting event – maybe 30. Wouldn’t that be cool to have a vibe like that 365 days a year? Sparks Street is the place to do it. There’s a lot of exciting opportunities downtown, and it seems to me Sparks Street could be the crown jewel of that.”

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