Opinion: Council gambles away economic progress over casino file

City councillors may have put the decision about the location of a potential casino in Ottawa behind them, but that doesn’t mean the resulting damage to the city’s reputation for economic development is going away any time soon.

By Megan Cornell.

If you’re looking to assess the lasting impact from the city’s decision-making process, look no further than the reaction from one of the biggest local business anchors.

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is furious over council’s decision to only consider a gaming facility if it’s located at the Rideau Carleton Raceway.

Despite repeated requests that he be allowed to submit the bid he spent months putting together, council rejected the pleas of the team owner.

He’s conducted several interviews, including one on a Toronto sports radio station that broadcasts to listeners across the country, complaining about Ottawa’s lack of commitment to process and open competition.

At the same time, his top employee, Senators Sports & Entertainment president Cyril Leeder, also resigned from the boards of several local economic development committees.

The Senators organization is a cornerstone business for Ottawa in several distinct ways. It employs a large number of people, contributes to several local charities and forms a key part of our local identity.

Just as importantly, though, it acts as an ambassador for the capital to outsiders.

If one of the city’s biggest private investors is sending a message to the world that Ottawa is not open for business, how are companies contemplating a move to the capital going to react?

The handling of the casino file has tarnished Ottawa’s reputation and damaged the hard work done by the city’s economic development office and Invest Ottawa, organizations that are trying to fix our reputation as a government town that’s not serious about economic development.

The creation of Invest Ottawa, an aggressive strategy to establish Ottawa as a centre for international investment, as well as a focus on bidding for marquee events such as the recent women’s world hockey championship have all been good initiatives.

However, this hard work is jeopardized when council abandons principles of fairness and competitiveness when making economic development decisions.

Mayor Jim Watson, who insists the city will continue to have a good working relationship with the Senators in the future, has acknowledged mistakes in the decision-making progress about a new casino.

But he will need to do more than that.

The best way to fix the mess council has created is for city hall to take ownership of the mistakes made and commit to a better process for the future.

Projects that involve more than one potential investor must be open and competitive. Council and residents of the city need to be well-informed about the economic impacts of the decisions that are being made. Private enterprise principles should be applied whenever possible.

Mr. Watson and the rest of council may wish to have all discussion of this matter go away.

However, the city needs to reassure the business community of Ottawa – and, just as importantly, outside investors – that the casino file is not exemplative of how the city intends to do business in the future.

Megan Cornell is a business lawyer and the chair of the Kanata Chamber of Commerce’s economic development committee.