Watson: ‘I gave this job everything I have’

Outgoing mayor reflects on his 12-year term

Watson

Mayor Jim Watson delivered his farewell remarks to many business and community leaders on Oct. 12 at the Mayor’s Breakfast Series. Here is an edited transcript of his remarks.

When I look back on the last 12 years, I’m also quite proud of what we’ve accomplished by working together.

After 50 years of inaction, Lansdowne Park was finally revitalized 10 years ago and it’s been a great success – with more parkland, new sports teams, events, festivals and farmers markets – but the time has come to renew some aging city-owned infrastructure.

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OSEG has proposed a concept plan for a new 5,500-seat event centre to replace the aging Civic Centre and the north side stands, which are in poor shape and present accessibility and structural integrity issues.

This new state-of-the-art event centre would be buried underground just east of the football field and would help us bring more concerts and cultural events to Ottawa.

Because we have to find a source of revenue to pay for this city asset, council voted in favour of a plan that would impose a ticket surcharge and sell air rights above the current site of the Civic Centre.

Watson

This would make room for more residential density – including affordable housing – leading to more walk-up traffic for restaurants, businesses and events.

Despite some local opposition to this plan, we need to move forward if we want to renew this infrastructure that dates back to 1967 and make the site more viable and sustainable in the long run.

Some residents like to oppose these great city-building projects because they either don’t like change – or they don’t want it in their backyard.

This is short-sighted, because we all know we need these large projects to continue to build our community and grow our economy. 

It’s just like those who oppose the Ottawa Hospital’s new Civic Campus because they can’t stand to lose 700 trees – half of which are invasive species – despite a commitment to replant at a ratio of five to one.

We need these projects to move forward if we want to take our city into the future instead of staying stuck in the past.

Real leadership is making tough, unpopular decisions that are good for the city’s future – and I’m proud that we’ve moved on many important projects during my tenure as mayor.

Watson

We moved our city forward by replacing diesel buses with electric rail and making Stages 1 and 2 of LRT a reality – and that’s made us a truly modern and sustainable G7 capital.

We invested in our local economy and jobs by creating Invest Ottawa in 2012, before giving the economic development agency a brand-new home at the Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards in 2017.

According to a recent economic impact study, between 2012 and 2020, the team at Invest Ottawa played a pivotal role in attracting over a billion dollars in foreign and direct investment to Ottawa, as well as facilitating over 11,000 well-paying jobs in our city.

We delivered the Ottawa River Action Plan and stopped sewage overflows into the river – making sure that current and future generations, as well as wildlife, can benefit from clean drinking water and enjoyable beaches.

We delivered a brand-new Ottawa Art Gallery that’s been a real hit with residents and visitors – and entrance is free of charge, so it’s accessible to everyone.

We’ve started construction on the beautiful and inspiring new Adisoke library, which is a few hundred metres from Pimisi Station and will be an anchor for future development at LeBreton Flats.

And LeBreton Flats is the next great city-building opportunity for Ottawa – with the potential to become an attractive community built around LRT, a major sporting event centre and other tourism assets.

Watson

It’s also one of the last remaining swaths of land where we can add thousands of housing units within the urban core.

Lansdowne 2.0, the new Civic Campus and LeBreton Flats … these projects all need to go ahead in the coming years for the greater good of the community – if we want to remain a competitive city that attracts investment and talent.

And our elected leaders – the next mayor and those who will make up city council following the municipal election next month – need to hear from business leaders just how important it is to continue this progress.

I want to sincerely thank the Board of Trade and the Ottawa Business Journal, who continue to bring business leaders together to have these important conversations.

They also give them a platform to share their stories, their realities and to be heard by the general public and elected officials.

I’ll count on you all to continue your good work to bring these issues to the top of the political agenda.

Unfortunately, some candidates running in this election would like you to think that we live in a backwater village that hasn’t evolved.

They would rather talk down Ottawa than build it up, and I don’t think that’s fair to our residents and business owners – or to our tourism partners, who work day-and-night to attract visitors and fill-up our hotels and restaurants.

As mayor, I’ve always been a cheerleader for Ottawa, and I’m a big fan of propping up our city – both when I’m in the community and when I’m travelling abroad.

Because at the end of the day, we live in one of the best cities in one of the best countries in the world – and that’s why close to 10,000 people move to Ottawa every year.

These new residents want to benefit from our enviable quality of life – with Ottawa being in the top three cities in Canada for quality of life, according to Mercer.

They want to benefit from our parks and our fantastic 1,065-kilometre cycling network – which has grown by 58 per cent since 2010, thanks to investments of more than $200 million in cycling infrastructure.

They’ve heard and seen how vibrant our city is – with close to 100 festivals and fairs, non-stop special events, and a welcoming artistic and cultural community.

They probably heard of the party we threw in 2017 to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary – a record-breaking year for tourism in Ottawa.

It was also the opportunity we needed to show Canada and the world that Ottawa is a fun and incredible place to visit.

Ottawa 2017 was the kind of initiative that changes the face of a city forever and the kind that kick-starts its next chapter – and I truly believe we achieved that.

Since then, it’s helped us attract a greater proportion of Gen Z workers to join our tech industry than any other city in North America.

These young workers want to live in Ottawa and work in our thriving tech industry, which continues to employ over 81,000 residents, with a critical mass of that talent working out of the Kanata North Business Park – Canada’s largest business park.

Thanks to all that activity, Ottawa continues to hold the title of the highest concentration of tech talent of any city in North America – sitting at 11.6 per cent, ahead of the San Francisco Bay area at 11.4 per cent.

This is why we need to continue to build more housing units – to keep life affordable while offering a good mix of housing options in every part of the city.

Although some would like you to think that we’re not making any progress on this front, the numbers paint a different picture.

Despite the onset of the pandemic and ongoing supply chain issues, the number of building permits issued by the city went up three per cent and 14 per cent respectively in 2020 and 2021.

Although it’s too early to comment on the full picture for 2022, we’re seeing the development industry respond to the density targets of the new Official Plan – with building permits for apartment and condo buildings up 13 per cent in the first eight months of the year, compared to the same period in 2021.

That translates to close to 9,000 residential units being approved for construction in the first eight months of 2022, compared to 6,600 for the same period last year – an impressive increase of 36 per cent in residential construction activity year-over-year.

And we know that more housing is good for everyone: it provides more options for families while keeping the cost of a home within reach for most.

These new residential buildings are not just popping up downtown; you can see them taking shape near many LRT stations in the east end, as well as in the suburbs.

For example, in Kanata, Nokia is planning a full redevelopment of its campus that will create 1,900 new residential units.

Last month, Wesley Clover announced its plans to build a new 30-storey tower offering 250 rental units next to the Brookstreet Hotel – a residential investment of $120 million in the heart of Kanata North.

But we also know that we have to build more affordable housing units if we want everyone in Ottawa – including our low-income residents – to have a roof over their head.

I’m proud that we’ve made historic capital investments of more than $60 million in this term of council in order to build new affordable and supportive housing units for our residents in need.

Of the 1,700 units currently in various stages of development across the city, 232 supportive housing units and 229 affordable units will be completed and offered to low-income residents in 2022.

Working closely with our community partners, our “Housing First” approach has been successful in diverting at-risk individuals away from the shelter system and into supportive housing.

Thanks to this collaboration, we’ve managed to reduce chronic homelessness by 19 per cent since June 2021.

Despite this progress, the housing crisis in our city – and across the country – is ongoing, and the next council will have to ensure that housing and affordability are at the top of the list of priorities.

With increasing costs in most sectors including housing and construction, members of the next council will have their work cut out for them.

They must deliver on a number of fronts while continuing to balance the budget at city hall – which is mandated by provincial law.

And they will have to do this while keeping tax increases low for our residents, many of which are already living paycheque to paycheque and grappling with inflation at the grocery store.

The city has to be part of the solution to these budget pressures that exist in every household; we can’t add to the burden that residents are already facing.

That will be no small feat for the incoming council, but I wish them the best of luck.

Although there were some really difficult days, I’ve enjoyed every moment that I was mayor of Ottawa.

I love our great city, and I love the people who make it a great place – and that means you.

I gave this job everything I have to give – and I thank you for allowing me the privilege to serve as your mayor.

Everything we accomplished together over the last 12 years would not have happened without your confidence and your trust in me – and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

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