Monday, May 27, 2024

More than 100 small businesses petition Ottawa’s Mayor for support

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An open letter to municipal politicians says these businesses want increased access to funding, rent control measures, training on de-escalation and naloxone use and more.

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More than 100 small businesses and entrepreneurs have called on Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and city councillors for funding, rent control and other measures while they struggle with rising inflation and rents.

“There is a fundamental failure on the part of the City of Ottawa to provide small businesses with the necessary opportunities, supports, and grants that are observed in other cities,” says an open letter from the businesses to municipal politicians. “The challenges we face, including rising inflation and uncontrolled rent hikes, are threatening the existence of many valuable businesses.”

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Businesses who have signed on to the letter include Beandigen Cafe, Bread By Us, Corner Peach, Gongfu Street Food Inc, Little Jo Berry’s, NU Grocery, Venus Envy and more.

The open letter was released on social media Wednesday, one week after it was sent to the politicians. Adrienne Row-Smith, a Hintonburg-based videographer and photographer who helped draft the letter, said she received just three responses. Councillors Jeff Leiper, Sean Devine and Stéphanie Plante suggested that meetings be held, Row-Smith said.

Tarek Hassan, the owner and chef at Gongfu Bao Bar and Café on Bank Street in downtown Ottawa, Dec. 13, 2023
Tarek Hassan, the owner and chef at Gongfu Bao Bar and Café on Bank Street in downtown Ottawa, Dec. 13, 2023 Photo by JULIE OLIVER /POSTMEDIA / FILE PHOTO

This newspaper sought comment via email from Sutcliffe on Wednesday. The mayor wrote back that he was sympathetic, but declined to address the letter’s specific concerns and requests.

“As a small-business owner for more than 30 years, I’m very attuned to the concerns raised in the letter,” Sutcliffe wrote.

He wrote that he had worked since Day 1 of his tenure as mayor with the Ottawa Board of Trade, Invest Ottawa and the city’s Business Improvement Areas to respond to concerns from small businesses. “Small business is the engine of our economy and we will continue to work hard to support their growth,” Sutcliffe wrote.

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But Row-Smith said none of the letter’s signatories or businesspeople she had spoken with had seen action from the mayor “that is equitable or (a) modicum of progress … If small businesses are the engine of the city’s economy, unfortunately, he is choosing to let it fall to disrepair.”

Row-Smith and Jo Masterson, owner of Little Jo Berry’s Bakery on Wellington Street West, said they wanted to cut out middlemen such as BIAs and deal directly with politicians.

“We felt this was a lot to ask of our BIA to take on,” Row-Smith said. “Their resources are stretched.”

Masterson, whose pronouns are they and them, said they and their eight-year-old business had tried to make their case through BIAs, but with little success. “BIAs are limited with how they can actually help,” Masterson said. “I don’t need someone representing my business. I need to be heard and I need to be supported.”

Most businesses who have signed the letter so far are located downtown or in Centretown, Row-Smith said. Ottawa’s core has been especially hard-hit since the COVID-19 pandemic began four years ago, coping with everything from the exodus of downtown workers to their home offices to the winter 2022 convoy protests.

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Bank Street in downtown Ottawa, March 19, 2024
Bank Street in downtown Ottawa, March 19, 2024 Photo by JULIE OLIVER /POSTMEDIA

Many signatories are food businesses such as restaurants and Masterson’s bakery. The letter says such businesses “were left behind during the pandemic and forced to absorb debt to adapt and continue service or close due to the pandemic mandates.”

But the letter’s signatories also include retailers, service businesses such as tattoo parlours, independent creative people and other vendors, constituting “a huge swath of businesses from very, very diverse backgrounds,” Row-Smith said.

The letter raises five “critical issues.”

It asks the City of Ottawa to implemented targeted grants and financial support programs specifically for small businesses. “These resources are crucial to helping us weather the economic challenges we face,” the letter says, noting that cities such as Toronto and Calgary are more supportive.

“Uncontrolled hikes in rent are threatening the sustainability of our businesses,” says the letter, which calls for the introduction of rent-control measures, “or incentives to ensure that small businesses are not forced out due to exorbitant rent increases.”

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Noting increases in harassment and violence on Ottawa streets, the letters asks the city to provide “all communities” with resources such as naloxone training, bystander intervention and de-escalation training. “We wish to be a part of a community-focused and equitable approach to make our neighbourhoods safer and more inclusive,” the letter says.

Bread By Us co-owner Jessica Carpinone, 2022.
Bread By Us co-owner Jessica Carpinone, 2022. Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /POSTMEDIA / FILE PHOTO

The letter contends the “continued amalgamation” of Ottawa BIAs is not helping businesses, which are falling through the cracks. It asks the city to create a small business advisory forum to give ideas, suggestions and feedback on policies. Vancouver created a small business roundtable in 2019 in addition to its BIA network, the letter says.

Finally, the letter calls for more initiatives promoting and celebrating Ottawa’s businesses.

Row-Smith said the letter was written over the past few months following consultations with other businesspeople.

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