On the whole, talk of how mergers are better for the business community, how bigger is better and how we need to speak with one voice is all nice rhetoric. However one must look at this concept from different perspectives to fully appreciate why "one voice" in Ottawa is not in the best interests of the regional chambers.
The most recent meetings discussing a merger between the four local chambers in Ottawa occurred in 2010. Most interested in pursuing the merger was the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the economic development branch of the City of Ottawa. It was clearly expressed that the chambers representing Orléans, Kanata and Nepean were not interested in merging. However, they were very interested in working together with a "shared voice" on citywide issues of mutual concern.
The Ottawa Chamber and the city's economic development branch were only interested if the chambers would take steps to unify in the future. Talk quickly changed to setting standardized membership fees, and when future gatherings of all concerned parties failed to come up with a solution and steps towards a merger, the promised regular meetings with the city and representatives from all four chambers dried up.
A unified fee structure failed as it would result in increased membership fees for the regional chambers. The largest of the four chambers was not concerned with the fallout this increase would create for the regional chambers. It was viewed as collateral damage working towards the "greater good." However, considering we are all membership groups whose first priority is advancing the interests of its membership, this did not seem logical.
Let's take a step back to 2008. The former Eastern Ottawa Chamber of Commerce was interested in merging with the Orléans Chamber. This merger was worth investigating because of the proximity of the two chambers. With a resounding negative response from the Orléans Chamber membership, the merger was dead in the water. The Orléans membership wanted the focus of the chamber to stay on Orléans and local issues, and to not be diluted by the needs of a larger community.
In 2009, the Eastern Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and its 110 members merged with the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce. This merger was to provide the aforementioned stronger voice for the Eastern Ottawa Chamber members. They were promised representation on the board of directors as well as a continuation of their local networking events in the Gloucester community. The Eastern Ottawa Chamber members had their membership fees grandfathered for 2010.
Step forward to present day and there are currently no local events in eastern Ottawa, no golf tournament and a disturbing 70 per cent of the membership did not renew once their fees were increased to the Ottawa Chamber's structure. And a stronger voice...?
There are opportunities for the regional chambers to work together and speak with a "shared voice." This does not require a merger. We are a unique city with distinct areas divided by the Greenbelt. This is neither Toronto nor Calgary and it should not be compared as such.
We in Orléans have unique issues and our economic development goals are different from those of Kanata and Ottawa. In a recent presentation, Bruce Lazenby, president and CEO of Invest Ottawa (formerly OCRI), indicated a desire for "collaboration" with other business groups and "chambers" in the city. To date, there has been no indication that Invest Ottawa will be including anyone other than the Ottawa Chamber in its plans. The chair of the Ottawa Chamber will be the only chamber representative on the Invest Ottawa Board.
In Orléans, we have a group of hard-working councillors, dedicated to the success of our community and we will continue to work together on economic development issues for Orleans. Our voice will be united.
A shared voice is indeed stronger than a single voice. Many businesses will join a chamber for just that reason, to have input into a strong voice of advocacy for business-related issues in their community. But the chamber's voice can only be effective when it truly speaks for those it represents.
David Chadala is chair of the Orléans Chamber of Commerce.