As the pandemic rolls on and federal government workers remain reluctant to return to the office, Ottawa’s downtown has changed inexorably, and creative minds are turning their attention to how to revitalize it.
BY JENNIFER CAMPBELL
SEVERAL COMMITTEES HAVE been formed to research ways to revitalize the downtown core. Capital spoke to some community members, entrepreneurs and officials to find out how they’re doing their part.
Tuesday Club 613
Cameron MacIntosh’s father ran a small business, and is credited as being the first person to bring fresh croissants to Eastern Canada with his Café Croissant in Fredericton, New Brunswick. And it was Cameron’s knowledge of how hard his father worked, coupled with the desire to create something in tribute to his late grandmother that led him to create the Tuesday Club 613.
“What we do is we help small businesses that were hurt by the pandemic by going out on Tuesday nights, which for a lot of bars and restaurants in the city is their slowest night, ” MacIntosh says.
The events have been going on weekly for more than a year and are usually attended by between 40 and 50 people, which can represent a pretty big boon to a restaurant that might otherwise be close to empty.
“I have a lot of empathy for small business owners and how difficult it can be to make a business function when times are good, and during the pandemic, it’s been a very, very difficult time, ” MacIntosh says.
Tuesday Club 613 focuses on locally owned businesses that are independently operated — no chains. He posts the events on social media under Tuesday Club 613 and they run from 6 p. m. to 10 p. m. on Tuesdays. He always asks for RSVPs and lets the restaurant or bar owner know how many will be coming so they can prepare for the onslaught. The demographic tends to be professionals between the ages of 25 and 40 and it’s 60 percent female, 40 percent male, but anyone who wants to join is welcome.
“You know the reputation of the city, but I also know that that reputation is completely inaccurate. Ottawa is a very vibrant, exciting city, it’s just that sometimes it can be difficult to connect with places and people in it. A really big part of what Tuesday Club tries to do is make the city accessible to people who may not have an easy way of plugging in.”
MacIntosh, who is a senior adviser with the Canada Border Services Agency, started the initiative with his partner, Shaarika Sarasija, a senior strategist in research and regulatory affairs with Humane Society International. The idea came from his grandmother — political aid and commentator Jackie Webster — who started a Tuesday club in Fredericton after former premier Richard Hatfield lost the 1987 election to Frank McKenna. She founded the Tuesday evening social club so she and Hatfield’s political staff could stay connected after they lost their jobs.
The district now known as SoPa was an initiative created by a handful of restaurants in north Centretown to attract tourists and locals alike. SoPa stands for “South of Parliament” in the same way that London’s SoHo district is south of Horton Street and New York’s SoHo is south of Houston Street.
Scott May, owner of Bar Robo and Q-Bar in Queen Street Fare, teamed up with Aiana owner Devinder Chaudhary and Thali owner Joe Thottungal to create the district in hopes it would attract more people to the downtown at night. The question, he says, was, “Do we get people [living] downtown first, or do we create stuff to lure them downtown? It’s a chicken and egg or cart-before-the-horse thing.”
SoPa’s launch was a start. The event, which featured chefs from Thali, Beckta Dining and Wine, North & Navy, the NAC’s 1 Elgin Restaurant, Cocotte Bistro and Queen St. Fare, sold out its 200 tickets and was a big success, May says. The following month, SoPa launched a beer created especially for the district by the Kichesippi Beer Company, which May says was also a hit. In April, the organizers held a cocktail contest, featuring five mixologists who were asked to make a cocktail with Flor de Caña rum.
“They all made amazing cocktails and guests got to taste them,” May says.
In May, there was a “great downtown scavenger hunt” with a prize pack that included a night’s stay downtown and tickets to the NAC. Meanwhile, May and the SoPa team are working to attract other entrepreneurs to move into the core.
“Things like live music venues, vintage clothing stores, vintage vinyl stores, high profile souvenirs like [those from] Maker House, ” May says. “Things that are really going to make people come out and wander around, making it a more livable type city downtown. The other part of SoPa is just to reinforce that there are a lot of things going on downtown.”
May thinks Sparks Street could be a perfect music destination for the city, akin to Frenchmen Street in New Orleans or Music Row in Nashville.
“The city wants to make this ‘Music City.’ Unfortunately, just saying it doesn’t make it so, ” May says. “We need to put our money where our mouth is. Ottawa is at a major crossroads. It has changed significantly in the last five years. We have a serious homeless problem, drug epidemic, the transit system is broken, the public service is fleeing the downtown core. Unless we rethink what’s important to us, it’s going to get worse.”
A vibrant core is vital
Hugh Gorman, who chairs the Ottawa Board of Trade’s economic development committee, says the committee has come to the conclusion that without a vibrant downtown core, it’s very difficult for a city to thrive. To that end, his committee has identified five key pillars, including creating affordable, walking-friendly, amenity-rich communities; ensuring safety and security for employees, residents, and tourists; supporting the growth of private and public sector employment; encouraging flexible and efficient government regulation and approvals; and supporting public and private investment in infrastructure.
“These are core areas of focus and the intent is to have very specific short-term action items related to each of these five pillars, ” Gorman says. “For example, and a thing that’s near and dear to my heart as a real estate development company, is flexible and efficient approvals. We have an affordability crisis happening in the city and part of the reason is because of the cost of development and the lack of new supply. The economics of new development, especially in the purpose- built rental and condo space, doesn’t make any sense.”
He says relief from development charges would help encourage purpose-built rental units, for example.
The economic development committee will also call for repurposing federal downtown buildings and it will be working with educational institutions to see if they are interested in those spaces.
The evening envoy
Ottawa is following in the footsteps of cities such as New York, Washington, and London, England, in establishing a position for a night commissioner, who will be charged with invigorating Ottawa’s nightlife as part of the city’s Nightlife Economy Action Plan. The early phases of the plan involve setting the stage for the night commissioner to be hired. Later phases involve establishing a nightlife ambassador council comprised of industry and community leaders to provide feedback and support to the nightlife commissioner’s one-person office.
“The recommendation that staff will execute this year is creating the framework for the nightlife commissioner’s office, [including] how it’s set up, how it operates and then hiring for that position, ” says Cindy VanBuskirk, who works with high economic impact projects with the City of Ottawa. “The thought would be to have the nightlife commissioner’s office up and running by January 2024.”
This idea was being considered before the pandemic to capitalize on the hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
A collaborative tourism plan
Ottawa Tourism, meanwhile, has developed a destination stewardship plan that represents a 10-year vision of what the city should be from a tourism lens.
“We have to work very closely with community partners, government partners and a whole range of stakeholders to collectively [create] this vision, and we each have our own little part to play in bringing the vision to reality,” says Catherine Callary, Vice- President of destination development at Ottawa Tourism. “A piece of that plan talks about the importance of having a vibrant downtown.”
The plan has 130 specific actions, such as rousing the downtown with expanded festivals and new festivals. “Over the next three to five years, it’s going to be a rolling strategy as things shift and evolve,” she says. “Vibrant downtowns don’t just happen.”
Callary said one recent survey found that Ottawa business has only gained back 52 percent of its pre-pandemic business since things started opening up again.
Naqvi’s task force
Ottawa MP Yasir Naqvi heads up a task force that is considering a number of strategies to revitalize and rebuild the downtown. His group is looking at how to allow for the conversion of federal office buildings to residential spaces, and is approaching tech companies to suggest they consider moving their operations to the core from Kanata. There are also discussions with post-secondary institutions about whether they could make use of some of the space.
Naqvi likes the idea of Ottawa becoming Music City North and filling some additional downtown space with music venues, including possibly finding a way to relaunch Barrymore’s.
His committee was aiming to release its recommendations in June.