On Tuesday, the organization formerly known as OCRI is expected to be officially rebranded as Invest Ottawa, capping off a radical transformation of the agency first outlined in Mr. Watson's campaign platform.
Once a membership-driven, tech-focused organization operating at arm's length from city hall, OCRI/Invest Ottawa has shifted its attention to supporting the broader "knowledge-based sector" while forging much closer ties to the municipal government.
President and CEO Bruce Lazenby brought a specific vision to the job when he was hired last fall and is actively leading the organization's transformation. But municipal officials, including the mayor, started reshaping OCRI prior to Mr. Lazenby's arrival.
To see how quickly these changes have come about, consider that there was no mention of establishing a business incubator - one of the flagship features of OCRI/Invest Ottawa's new office just off Preston Street - in the organization's five-year strategic plan, released less than a year ago.
Similarly, there was no hint of the significant internal restructuring that saw its operations reorganized into two distinct divisions. Nor was there talk about renaming the agency for the second time in a year.
After starting 2011 under its longtime moniker, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, the agency rebranded itself last spring by changing the latter half of its acronym to mean "Regional Innovation." Now, it's poised to change labels yet again, this time to "Invest Ottawa," which just happens to be the name Mr. Watson touted on the campaign trail.
"How many of you know what OCRI stands for, let alone what it does?" he asked during an April 2010 election speech to the Rotary Club of Ottawa.
Mr. Watson "stressed" the need for OCRI to refocus its activities on its core marketing business, starting with "something as simple and important as a new name - Invest Ottawa."
OCRI's then-CEO Claude Haw told OBJ at the time that municipal officials can't dictate the agency's mandate, given that it is a separate not-for-profit organization.
That was almost two years ago. Today, the city is firmly in the driver's seat.
For starters, Mr. Watson now co-chairs Invest Ottawa. It's also the municipality setting the agency's agenda. For years, OCRI suffered from being forced to answer to multiple masters, all with their own priorities. Now, the new agency is said to be turning down outside dollars when not earmarked for programs aligned with the city's objectives.
A telling moment came last September, when the city's auditor general reported he was concerned that a growing share of OCRI's administration costs were being covered by the city's grant to the organization.
The report didn't object to OCRI's overall administrative costs, just that the agency was using city dollars to keep its lights on, rather than delivering programs.
In a separate recommendation, the auditor general suggested the city use a "scorecard" to assess the impact of OCRI's initiatives. However, city staff used that opening to propose that the municipality exert greater control over the outside agency by tacking on a detailed list of "milestones and deliverables" to future funding contracts. Payments would be tied to achieving those milestones.
Another example of the tightening relationship between the municipal government and the organization formerly known as OCRI involves real estate.
Last December, the agency moved from Queensview Drive to the former OpenText offices on Aberdeen Street. The Little Italy space is actually leased by the city, which is also allocating space to federal and provincial economic development officials.
The city, in turn, is subleasing space to OCRI at a discounted rate. A senior city official bristled at the suggestion that this was a "subsidy," preferring instead to highlight how OCRI will generate revenue by renting out space to entrepreneurs in its planned business incubator.
OCRI still had nine years left on its Queensview Drive lease, but the city stepped in with plans to temporarily move OC Transpo officials into the vacant space.
For his part, the mayor disagrees with the suggestion that the city is calling the shots at OCRI/Invest Ottawa.
"The city's so-called control is very minimal, in terms of decision-making," he said in a recent interview.
"What you are seeing is a mayor and council that have a greater interest in economic development, and we wanted to put our money where our mouth was. We couldn't simply chirp at the sidelines and be critical of OCRI and economic development if we weren't prepared to put some dollars in," he added, arguing OCRI was previously allocating an enormous amount of resources into applying for outside funding, which took away from its marketing role.
The city increased the municipality's economic development budget by approximately $2 million in 2011 to reach $5.53 million. That's slated to increase by $70,000 in 2012 to cover inflationary increases.
It's not immediately clear from reading city budget documents how much goes to OCRI, but the agency's 2010 annual report showed the city contributed approximately $2.95 million that year.
Over the course of 2012, Invest Ottawa is expected to launch its business incubator and hire two new managing directors to lead its main divisions. In the coming years, observers can measure the success rate of startups incubated on Aberdeen Street, add up the investments made in local companies and ultimately decide if a more prosperous tech sector is one of Mr. Watson's legacies of his first year in office.