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More reliable public transit, more flights to Ottawa and less red tape for small business are just some of the items at the top of Michelle Groulx’s wish list as she looks ahead to 2023.
The executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA) told OBJ Friday that there is work to be done to bring about a “prosperous” year after three years of struggles for local businesses.
Coming in at the top of the list is efficient and accessible public transportation throughout the city, Groulx said. Businesses saw the consequences of unreliable service as employees struggled to get to work and traffic for customers and consumers was interrupted, she added.
“The ability to get around our city is critical,” said Groulx. “It opens up businesses to easily hire university students, for example, who would have a very difficult time getting to places like Kanata to work. We need to get people around to work and we need to talk about how to get between our communities and within our communities.”
According to Groulx, reliable transportation is key to simply getting more people out and about in the community, supporting and working at local businesses.
“We need a lot more people out because we need to build our labour force,” she explained. “Sometimes small businesses can’t be fully open or operating because they need more staff, so we need to bring more employable people into the city, people out on the streets, people shopping, and people to work in our businesses.”
Another part of that foot traffic puzzle is adding more direct flights into the Ottawa International Airport for tourists, Groulx said.
“(Direct flights) help bring events to Ottawa and ultimately help support businesses.”
At the municipal level, Groulx has a few big asks. Businesses would benefit from less red tape to make licensing, patio permits and other processes easier and quicker. “Time is money,” Groulx said.
In addition, Groulx says part of an ideal 2023 would involve debt forgiveness for government loans that kept businesses afloat during the pandemic. It’s at the “top of the list,” she said.
“They’d love to have the debt forgiven for something they weren’t responsible for,” Groulx continued. “It’s a big ask, but it’s something that would help bring businesses back and give them an even start.”
A reinvented downtown is also on Groulx’s agenda, although she admits it is delicate territory. Since the pandemic, OCOBIA has seen suburban businesses suffer less than those downtown due to the shift in work models and a rise in consumers working from home.
The solution, she said, is a brand-new model for the downtown that creates a community that is buzzing 24/7. Groulx said she is hopeful and is keenly awaiting the work of the Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force.
“We need something new, beyond what we saw pre-pandemic,” she said. “Every business wants that.
“Once we start transforming downtown, everything else will follow. If the core is rotten, everything else starts to go.”
Groulx also mentions that there needs to be more discussion surrounding the transfer of ownership of small businesses in Ottawa. A new report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business found that more than $2 trillion in business assets could change hands within the next decade as 76 per cent of small business owners plan to exit their businesses.
The report found that, of the owners considering leaving their business, 75 per cent are retiring, 22 per cent are burned out and 21 per cent want to step back from their responsibilities as owners. But only one in 10 business owners have a formal business succession plan in place.“We have been seeing businesses close almost surprisingly,” said Groulx. “Multimillion-dollar businesses have mergers and acquisitions, and it's great when they're bought and sold. It would be fantastic for this to happen for small businesses so they aren’t afraid to talk about their want to close and move on.”
Groulx points to the example of House of Cheese, a specialty food store in the ByWard Market, which has announced it is closing after almost 50 years in business.“If the possibility of it closing was more publicly known, it could have transferred hands because it was a very loved business,” said Groulx. “I think it would be fantastic if small businesses that are considering closure think about an opportunity to pass it on so our community can still enjoy the business … passing the torch as opposed to closing the door.”