That was the message from Mario Lefebvre, the director for municipal studies with the Conference Board of Canada, to a roomful of Ottawa businesspeople and politicians Wednesday at the inaugural State of the Economy luncheon.
“We can’t count the (Ottawa and Gatineau) economy down and out,” said Mr. Lefebvre, speaking at the Chateau Laurier. “We never could, we probably never will be able to.”
He cited the downsizing of the federal government that took place in the 1990s and the tech bubble burst of the early 2000s as examples of setbacks for the Ottawa and Gatineau economies in the past.
There will be a number of obstacles the area will have to overcome in the next few years to see a return to extensive economic growth. The main one he spoke about is the ongoing reduction in jobs with the federal government, one of the region’s largest employers.
This was going to contribute to a decline in employment, according to Conference Board forecasts. Thanks to a strong first half, the number of jobs in Ottawa-Gatineau is expected to grow 2.06 per cent this year before contracting by 0.53 per cent in 2013.
The local economy as a whole is forecast to grow by one per cent this year and 1.9 per cent in 2013, placing Ottawa-Gatineau behind all other major Canadian metropolitan areas.
Mr. Lefebvre also predicted the growth of disposable income would be almost half of pre-recession levels for the area in 2013.
However Ottawa and Gatineau have always shown an ability to attract talented people - which, according to Mr. Lefebvre, means that businesses will usually follow. The area has a high proportion of French speakers and an attractive quality of life, making it one of the biggest “magnets” for talent in Canada.
The ongoing job cuts in the federal civil service mean Ottawa more than ever before needs to attract new sectors and different businesses to the area, said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.
“We can no longer depend on the federal government to shelter us from the storms of the economy,” said Mr. Watson, speaking to the same group. “Instead we need to construct a new economic engine.”
One of the main areas of focus should be on tourism, he said. He emphasized the city’s plans to attract people to Ottawa for the country’s 150th birthday in 2017 as an example of what they are doing to bring in more money from visitors.
He also unveiled two new ideas designed to encourage investment in the city.
Locateottawa.ca is a recently unveiled website that allows businesses to zoom in on a particular area of the city and see statistics such as consumer spending and demographics down to the closest street corner. He said he believes this will make it easier for businesses across the country and around the world to spend money in the city.
The other is Capital Investment Track, a program that assigns staff members to certain investments to help them get approval for city processes such as rezoning and signage.
The event also featured a panel discussion with several local industry leaders, as well as a presentation from city economic development manager Saad Bashir.
Pick up a copy of Nov. 12 print edition of OBJ for more coverage of the economic forecasting event.