The drive to bring Ottawa’s chambers of commerce together under one roof has finally succeeded.
After months of discussions followed by a week-long online vote of its members, the Orléans Chamber of Commerce said Thursday night it has agreed to join the former Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the West Ottawa Board of Trade in the city’s newly amalgamated Ottawa Board of Trade.
The Orléans chamber said its members voted 72 per cent in favour of merging with the newly named board of trade. Ninety-eight members – representing about two-thirds of the organization’s total membership – took part in the balloting.
“The things that we can do together as a unified chamber are far greater than what we can do on our own,” Andrew Scott, the chair of the Orléans chamber, told OBJ on Friday.
Combining forces will eliminate duplication of services and allow the newly rebranded Ottawa Board of Trade to devote more time and energy to pushing its economic development agenda at City Hall, Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill, he added.
“What we have to do now as we focus on growing, instead of having, say, three websites, doing all the same events everywhere, we can actually then dedicate people – our main resource – to actually lobbying better or finding out what our members are saying and be able to communicate that more effectively.”
The smallest of the three organizations, the Orléans chamber had just one full-time staff member. Scott said it had its hands full just with hosting networking events, giving it little time to engage in economic development efforts such as promoting the east end as a business destination.
“Realistically, we were just focused on surviving in a lot of cases,” he said. “The lobbying part was something we never really got around to. We just didn’t have the time or the resources to do it ... effectively.”
The chamber’s decision to join forces with its Ottawa counterparts came after months of sometimes contentious debate within the east-end business group.
Although the Orléans chamber was originally part of the merger talks that began more than a year ago, the organization’s board of directors unanimously rejected a joint task force’s proposal for a singular organization to represent Ottawa’s businesses, citing concerns about low representation on the combined board and wanting to retain some financial independence.
The Orléans chamber attempted to put the question to its membership in May, but postponed the vote until after a new board was elected in June.
Scott said he believed “fear of the unknown” might have led some merchants to oppose a merger, but he added that once a lot of skeptical members heard about the potential benefits of amalgamation, they changed their minds.
Scott dismissed fears that east-end businesses’ concerns will be overshadowed in a larger organization.
“What I feel is that our voice can only get stronger,” he said. “Say there’s an issue. We’ll actually have time to devote to it because our resources aren’t fully spent on just staying alive.”
Mischa Kaplan, interim co-chair of the board of trade, said having “one united voice” will give the organization more clout and credibility in the business community at large.
With about 1,500 members, he said, the board of trade represents only about four per cent of all Ottawa companies. He wants to see that number grow substantially.
“There’s so many businesses in Ottawa that either don’t understand what a chamber does or don’t think that there’s any value in what a chamber does,” Kaplan said. “I think bringing our voices together, bringing our resources together, is going to help us redefine what that value is and hopefully improve that value for people.”
Kaplan said initiatives such as the Capital Build Task Force – which was launched earlier this year by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce to push forward city-building projects such as the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats and the expansion of light rail to Gatineau – will carry even more weight with a larger, region-wide organization behind them.
“We’re looking at these issues as not just what’s best for the short term and the immediate geographical area, but what is good for the city at large,” he said.
Scott said being part of a bigger organization will give Orléans community-builders the tools they need to promote the east end as a great place to do business.
“We want to bring more employers to Orléans and make it a place where we can live, work and stay,” he said, adding the new board of trade will have the manpower to effectively lobby the feds to bring jobs to his region, which is slated to get light rail by 2022.
“That just presents a huge opportunity for people not only to get around the city faster, but for people to actually come to Orléans. There’s really no reason why Orléans can’t be a central area for growth.”
The Ottawa chamber and West Ottawa Board of Trade officially agreed to merge in June and set up a transitional board which will now include members of the Orléans chamber. Among its tasks will be to set guidelines for a permanent board of directors that will be formed in the next 12-18 months and feature representation based on region, gender and business size and sector.
Kaplan said the board’s next steps will include setting up committees and task forces to deal with issues such as economic development and launching a drive to recruit new members.
“Ten years down the road, I think we’re going to see that having one single chamber, one single voice of business in Ottawa, is going to really turn out dividends for economic development and for the prospects of business in Ottawa,” he added.