In his first major policy speech of the municipal election campaign, Mr. Watson said the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, or OCRI, should be renamed “Invest Ottawa” and leave initiatives such as the School Breakfast Program to other agencies.
“They do some very good work, but I think they have to look at their mandate and understand what core businesses they should be in,” Mr. Watson told reporters following a lunchtime address to the Rotary Club of Ottawa Monday.
“I want OCRI to focus (on) attracting businesses and helping businesses grow.”
Many members of Ottawa’s business community are uncertain on what exact role OCRI plays in municipal economic development. While some criticize it for being too tech-centric, others complain it absorbs scarce city tax dollars that should be going to other business organizations.
During the municipality’s annual budget debates last fall, the chairman of the city’s Business Advisory Committee, Rob Sproule, told councillors OCRI uses city dollars to run networking, education and training programs that are “traditionally chamber (of commerce) activities.”
Mr. Sproule added committee members are concerned that the city makes a sizable financial contribution to OCRI from its economic development budget without ensuring the funds are spent primarily on economic development activities and without evaluating or auditing OCRI's performance.
Some say part of the problem is that there are too many disjointed organizations trying to speak for businesses in Ottawa.
In his speech, Mr. Watson suggested the creation of another group, a council of business improvement areas, so the mayor could “meet regularly with the leaders of our entrepreneurial community.” Additionally, he proposed reviving The Ottawa Partnership, a moribund organization created to bring together public and private-sector leaders to provide advice to the city.
Mr. Watson also addressed the long delays faced by developers in securing municipal permits for their projects. He promised to set standards for processing planning and building permit applications. If these times are not met, the application fees would either be waived or significantly reduced, something Mr. Watson said would require a major “change in culture” at city hall.