Jim Watson put economic development front and centre when he officially kicked off his election campaign in late April with a lunchtime speech to the Rotary Club of Ottawa at the Marriott Hotel.
“For too many years, we have relied too heavily on the federal public service to create jobs,” he said at the time.
“If we are successful in creating a more focused and effective economic development strategy, our city, through an expanded tax base, becomes a more affordable and welcoming city for both property taxpayers and businesses.”
His campaign literature called economic development “one of the most important responsibilities of a civic leader” and outlined several priorities in working with the city’s business community.
Now that the ballots have been counted, OBJ looks at the local business sectors most likely to benefit – and those that will face challenges – during Mr. Watson’s term as mayor.
Tourism is widely regarded as Ottawa’s third-largest industry, employing approximately 20,000 residents. It’s also the only sector explicitly mentioned as one of Mr. Watson’s top economic development priorities.
He said he wants a year of celebrations in the nation’s capital for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 and said the city should strive to attract every major convention, sporting match and cultural event it can find.
But a top industry observer said there’s a key component missing from Mr. Watson’s tourism platform: money.
“It doesn’t matter if it is a large convention, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Genie Awards, it doesn’t matter if it is a major sporting event. It requires cash to buy these things,” Ottawa Tourism president and CEO Noel Buckley said during a mayoral debate last week.
Mr. Watson promised to find Ottawa Tourism office space inside a civic building, a move he estimated will save the agency $130,000 in rent annually.
However, that would have only represented a 1.36-per-cent increase in Ottawa Tourism’s revenues, which totalled $9.58 million last year.
Contractors and architects
Anecdotes about meeting small-scale builders on the campaign trail and hearing how they’ve spent months waiting for municipal construction permits became a staple for Mr. Watson during mayoral debates.
He promised to set standards for turn-around times for planning and building permits, and said he would waive or significantly reduce application fees if those standards are not met.
“That will require a major shift in mentality and a concerted effort,” Mr. Watson said in April.
“To the skeptics I say – just watch me.”
Mr. Watson will have his work cut out for him. In the city’s second-quarter performance report, city staff note they haven’t come close to meeting provincially mandated turnaround times for processing site plan applications in any of the past 10 quarters.
Local businesses could find themselves with more say at city hall under Mr. Watson. He’s promised to establish a council of business improvement areas and meet regularly with the leaders of BIAs.
Mr. Watson said this could, for example, help small businesses during road and sewer reconstruction projects.
Establishing a new council of BIAs could either consolidate the number of organizations speaking on behalf of the local business community, or create yet another economic development organization vying for the attention of politicians and bureaucrats.
Observers have long noted the fragmented nature of the local business community's representation, which features several chambers of commerce, 17 BIAs, OCRI and Ottawa Tourism, among other associations.
One of the most interesting parts of Mr. Watson’s April economic development speech was his criticism of the city’s leading economic development organization, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.
“How many of you know what OCRI stands for, let alone what it does?” he asked.
“We must refocus this agency to its core business – attracting and growing private-sector jobs.”
He later named OCRI’s school breakfast program as one initiative that should be left to other organizations.
In an election-day interview, OCRI president and CEO Claude Haw said he was somewhat taken aback by Mr. Watson’s comments, but that the mayor’s vision is aligned with a program review already underway at OCRI.
“I took exception to a couple of specific points, but overall I think it is right on,” he said.
He said OCRI already cut several non-core programs late last year and that further structural changes are on the horizon.
When asked, Mr. Haw said the city – which contributed just under $2 million to OCRI’s budget last year – can’t directly dictate OCRI’s mandate.
“OCRI is a separate not-for-profit organization that has a strong relationship with the city,” he said.
Mr. Watson favours holding the line on the urban boundary, putting him squarely at odds with the city’s homebuilding industry.
They argue Ottawa needs more land for residential development to ensure homebuyers have choice and prevent sprawl from spreading further into the city’s rural areas and outlying communities.
But Mr. Watson has a different view. He said suburban growth places a strain on municipal finances as the city is forced to build and maintain a growing network of roads and sewers.
“Civic leaders will always be under pressure to expand the urban boundary, but we need to have the strength to see the bigger picture,” he said.
City’s council previous decision to add 222 hectares – compared to the 842 hectares recommended by city staff – is being appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. A hearing is scheduled for late February, said John Herbert, who heads the Greater Ottawa Homebuilders’ Association.
“I’ll be very surprised if we don’t win,” he said in an earlier interview.
Representatives from the National Capital Heavy Construction Association appeared at mayoral debates, and at least one all-candidates' meeting, to press for a continuation of the two-per-cent infrastructure levy introduced during the last term of council.
They say the levy is necessary to give the industry the predictability it needs to make appropriate investments in equipment and employees.
But with Mr. Watson pledging to keep annual property tax increases to 2.5 per cent, it seems unlikely the levy will be continued.
Of the four leading candidates for mayor, only Andy Haydon indicated he’d support it.