by Kate Chappell
Dubbed the Greater Ottawa Business Improvement Area Association, GoBIA is attempting to improve communication amongst the small business community and city officials.
In effect, GoBIA will represent roughly 4,000 small businesses, which collectively pay more than $67 million in commercial taxes annually.
"The city's small business community serves as an early warning system for us to find trends and challenges. This will be a chance for us to listen to some concerns and frustrations," Mr. Watson said in an interview with OBJ. "This is an opportunity for me to help bring the BIAs closer to city council. Our philosophy is that we are rolling out the red carpet, not the red tape."
The GoBIA initiative is part of the city's overall economic development strategy. GoBIA includes several components, including quarterly meetings with the mayor, deputy mayor and senior city staff, research grant funding, and facilitation services to bring the groups together.
"Our single biggest mandate is to make the lives of business owners as easy as possible. We will take their feedback and pass it around," said Saad Bashir, the city's economic development manager. The quarterly meetings will provide business owners with "unobstructed access" to the mayor, Mr. Bashir added.
The support will not only be about access to officials, but also financial help, with $110,000 provided in 2011. And while a concrete operational system has yet to be determined, it could include the dedication of a city economic development official to GoBIA. The funding envelope could also include grants for streetscaping, facade improvements or retail studies if the BIAs can agree on one project to be the recipient of funds.
The life of a small business owner is certainly replete with frustration, and Ottawa is not immune to common complaints of too much red tape at city hall. In addition, for at least a decade small business has complained of a lack of a voice at city hall, perhaps due in some part to the vast array of groups representing business owners.
Creating GoBIA was one of Mr. Watson's campaign promises. In putting his own stamp on the city's economic development policies, however, Mr. Watson is sidelining the traditional voice of small firms at city hall, the business advisory committee.
Made up of volunteers from a variety of sectors, the committee is supposed to meet monthly and report regularly to city council's finance and economic development committee.
Following a meeting with the mayor, BAC chairperson Teresa Whitmore told the committee that Mr. Watson felt the BAC was duplicating the efforts of his new organization and left her with the impression that the committee's future was in jeopardy.
"We're dead," she said at a meeting last week.
"(The mayor) doesn't see any value in advisory committees."
Some in the small business community are cautiously optimistic about GoBIA.
"We are feeling, overall, quite positive. We see value in our collective strength,"Preston Street BIA executive director Lori Mellor said. "We have been doing this informally for years - meeting to knowledge share," she added.
Ms. Mellor, who is one of the city's longest-serving BIA directors, said GoBIA will provide a chance to clear up any misconceptions to council and the public as to what BIAs do, such as the fact that they are not taxpayer-funded. In fact, BIAs operate as not-for-profit groups, although they occasionally receive municipal funds for projects such as facade improvements.
Indeed, the confusion surrounding the status of BIAs is a topic Ms. Mellor plans to raise at the meeting, as there has been some speculation that the city is set to change the status to for-profit.
"This puts us in kind of a limbo," Ms. Mellor said, noting that she wonders how the change will affect the taxation of BIAs, for example.
(For his part, Mr. Bashir said that the city does not intend to change the status of BIAs, which are provincially regulated).
Another concern amongst the BIA community is that the city will require additional funding from them to support GoBIA. "The board is not willing to contribute significant funds," Ms. Mellor said.
Erin Kelly, director of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, said GoBIA will be a positive development for the small business community. However, it will be a challenge for members to agree on priorities, given the neighbourhood-oriented focus of BIAs, she added. "They haven't had to come together to set priorities," Ms. Kelly said. "But we are happy they are doing this. It will make it easier for us to work co-operatively with the BIAs."
– With a report from Peter Kovessy