Friday, July 19, 2024

Ottawa’s first ‘night mayor’ is on a mission to shed city’s boring reputation

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It’s a worn trope that Ottawa is boring. The Canadian capital, so the stereotype holds, is a sleepy town of risk-averse nine-to-five government workers. One former cabinet minister once famously quipped that “the best thing about Ottawa is the train to Montreal,” a bastion of Quebecois cool two hours to the east.

It is a reputation that has outlasted its welcome, city officials have decreed, in appointing a night commissioner to make Ottawa “a nightlife destination of choice for residents, visitors, businesses and investors”.

Ottawa’s first “night mayor” arrived last month on a mission to “get his hands dirty” in the complex machinery of the municipal government.

“I’m going to try to fix the engine,” Mathieu Grondin says on the patio of an Irish bar in the ByWard Market, a vibrant if gritty district of bars, restaurants and street stalls.

The city created the role of nightlife commissioner in a “Nightlife Economy Action Plan” published last year that highlighted that Ottawa’s nighttime spending amounted to less than 30% of daytime spending.

Ottawa’s new nightlife commissioner Mathieu Grondin. Photograph: © Campbell MacDiarmid

While the role is new for Canada, similar advocacy based “night tsar” positions exist in overseas cities more renowned for nightlife, including London and Amsterdam.

Grondin brings decades of night owl experience, including as the founder of a non-profit nightlife promotion group MTL 24/24. His past nightlife ambassadorial duties have taken him as far as the wartorn Ukrainian city of Kherson after its liberation from Russian forces in 2022, on a tour organised by Ukrainian music promoters.

Bubbling with enthusiasm for what he describes as a human-sized city with a great local music scene, Grondin says things have changed since Ottawa’s reputation for sleepiness developed. “The city I see now is a very, very different city than I saw 25 years ago, it’s much more dynamic at night, much more vibrant culturally.”

Three weeks into the role, Grondin says he needs to consult with more stakeholders before presenting a plan for what he will actually achieve but points hopefully to “red tape” as an area to take action.

Many of those involved in Ottawa nightlife – where grassroots music and arts scenes thrive – have watched Grondin’s appointment with interest but wonder about the city’s overall commitment to promoting nightlife.

Jason St Laurent, curator at the artist-run Saw Centre, notes that overall public investment in arts and entertainment remains low in Ottawa. “The comparison is unfair to say ‘Montreal is so much more culturally dynamic’, yes, but they put their money where their mouth is,” he says.

Barrymore’s Music Hall in downtown Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Photograph: Stephen Harrison/Alamy

Ottawa is indeed a red tape city, says the music promoter Rachel Weldon, who remains wary about why the city has created a one-person role without significant budget to tackle such a challenge.

As the founder of Debaser, an arts and music group that stages the quarterly Pique festival, Weldon says she is all-too familiar with the limitations imposed by noise complaints and liquor licensing ending at 2am.

Noise complaints downtown are sure to increase if a plan to revitalise Ottawa’s urban core with 40,000 new residents over the next decade succeeds.

An amalgamation of a dozen former municipalities and townships, Ottawa is a sprawling city bigger in area than Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary combined, but with a population barely a third that of Toronto’s.

Past zoning regulations encouraged workers to commute from homes in the suburbs to jobs downtown, with the low population density making public transport expensive and owning a car essential for many.

That model was upturned during the pandemic, when the downtown core emptied of workers, many of whom still prefer to work from home.

Night life in the Byward Market, Ottawa Canada. Photograph: Brownstock/Alamy

Rethinking zoning to allow higher density mixed use walkable neighbourhoods is necessary to bring more inhabitants to downtown Ottawa, says Mary Rowe, the president of the Canadian Urban Institute. “All of that is kind of up for grabs, and Ottawa is a perfect example of how that transition is happening.”

In May, her institute and the Ottawa Board of Trade published an ambitious action plan to improve the downtown creating 50,000 new jobs, and addressing an acute homelessness crisis and a shortage of mental health support. Such investments would cost some $500m, the report says.

But it will not be easy to usher such an ambitious public project through a governance system that spreads power between densely populated urban electoral districts and rural or suburban wards – in addition to an overlying federal body, the National Capital Region. “Right now the urban wards are out-voted by the suburban and rural wards. So it makes it very difficult to try and make decisions to benefit the downtown core,” says the councillor Ariel Troster, who represents the urban Somerset ward.

That means Grondin will have to rely largely on his own passion and experience in advocating for a better nightlife experience in the city, something he says he is ready to do.

For now, he has some words for the doubters: “If you think it’s a boring city, maybe you’re not going out enough.”

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