Opinion: Wanted: more business advocacy at Ottawa City Hall

As this term of city council draws to a close, those involved with economic development are assessing its progress and thinking about how the municipal politicians elected this fall can make Ottawa an even more prosperous place.

By Megan Cornell.

One of the biggest achievements from the last four years is the formation of Invest Ottawa. Created out of the ashes of a faltering predecessor, OCRI, Invest Ottawa has had some early successes and has gained the respect and interest of parts of the business community in Ottawa as the primary vehicle for delivering local economic development services.

It has a monumental mandate: to advance economic development programs and initiatives that boost entrepreneurship, create wealth and generate jobs, while marketing Ottawa’s economy and quality of life.

Not included in that mission, however, is independently advocating for businesses – a voice that’s currently missing at city hall.

When Invest Ottawa – which is co-chaired by the mayor – launched, the city disbanded the business advisory committee, a group of independent business representatives whose sole function was to advise councillors on economic development as it pertained to municipal policies.

The defence of this move was that, between Invest Ottawa and a newly formed “council of BIAs,” the city would have adequate business advisers.

Initial reports suggest the Ottawa Council of Business Improvement Areas is receiving advance notice of municipal matters that are of interest or concern to the business community and is receiving a chance to present its views to city council.

This is a positive development and suggests the council of BIAs may prove successful. However, a major flaw in this approach is that BIAs represent only certain segments of the city.

Businesses in a given geographic area must first decide that it has a collective interest in such an organization and then go through a lengthy process to be established as a BIA. Part of that process is a decision to levy that business community to fund the activities of the BIA. The city has set up a system where the only business representatives that are officially and regularly consulted and provided advance notice of issues are those that decide to pay an association fee to do so.

Not only is this inherently problematic, it also leaves much of the city – including many outer urban, suburban and rural areas – without a voice around that table.

A solution to broadening the reach of that business advisory capacity would be to invite the city’s five chambers of commerce to join the council of BIAs, as well as Invest Ottawa. This would ensure the entire city, especially the rural components, are represented.

Another important step the city can take is to require an economic development analysis to be part of all city staff reports.

The absence of such a process has been keenly apparent, including in the city’s massive and recent multibillion-dollar transportation master plan. For example, there was no consideration of the economic development implications of a light rail line connecting – or bypassing – the airport.

Similarly, there was no comparable analysis to support prioritizing the construction of rail lines on certain routes over others. For example, there was no mention of the significant number of employees who travel between downtown and Kanata and no mention of the economic development benefits of running light rail directly to Kanata in the coming years.

As another example, recent changes to the city’s official plan capped building heights on properties located a certain distance from the Transitway. City staff gave no consideration to business parks outside of the downtown core and how such height restrictions could stifle growth.

While council is to be applauded for identifying this issue at the 11th hour, it would have been identified in advance if the official plan had received a mandatory economic development analysis.

In contrast, staff recently examined a zoning application for a property within the Kanata North Business Park. The rezoning application was to accommodate an elementary school within the business park on lands designated for employment purposes. In a thorough report, city staff considered the economic development implications of such a zoning change and recommended against it.

As taxpayers, the business community deserves more than lip service to economic development in this city.

Megan Cornell is a business lawyer and chair of the West Ottawa Board of Trade’s economic development committee. She is also a member of the Kanata North BIA economic development committee. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the BIA or Board of Trade.