Ottawa’s small biz community squabbles over representation

The question of how to best represent Ottawa’s 4,000 small businesses is up for debate as support wanes for the Greater Ottawa Business Improvement Area.

The entity, which is meant to give small businesses a stronger, united voice at City Hall hasn’t even been incorporated yet.

But Lori Mellor, executive director of the Preston Street BIA, says Preston has withdrawn its intention to be part of GOBIA.

“All it’s doing is adding a layer of cost and bureaucracy and we’re still going to be doing all the work,” Mellor says.

She says GOBIA will complicate the communication process between the BIAs and the city by adding another layer of administration.

Another problem is that individual business areas will have to pay membership fees to GOBIA, and that money will be allocated to help some BIAs complete projects.

That means some business areas will be supporting development in other business areas, which Mellor says is counterintuitive to the point of having a BIA.

“We’re not a trade union,” she says. “We’re independent business associations and we’re friendly competitors.”

“We’re not a trade union. We’re independent business associations and we’re friendly competitors.”

Mellor says it might also mean that individual BIAs are not heard from as much since the mayor will meet with the GOBIA representative, and get together less frequently with members from the 17 individual BIAs.

GOBIA might make communication easier

But Christine Leadman, the Glebe BIA’s executive director, says GOBIA might actually simplify the communication process and help the BIAs focus on what they have in common.

According to Leadman, who is helping to draft GOBIA’s constitution, a citywide BIA has the ability to lobby decision makers on issues such as garbage pickup, small business taxation and graffiti removal.

It can also take on the role of a mediator, if needed, between the city and individual BIAs.

“But GOBIA never replaces the role of the individual BIA,” Leadman explains.

That’s because a lot of a BIA’s work is specific to the area it represents. For example, long-term construction is an ongoing concern for some BIAs, including Preston, the Glebe and Chinatown Somerset.

Coping with torn up roads and rerouting traffic to keep business coming to an area takes an intricate knowledge of the project and the businesses affected, according to Leadman, who took the helm of the Glebe BIA a few months before the construction along Bank Street began in May.

Through her connections at the city and by being actively engaged with the contractors, this former Ottawa city councillor says a two and a half year project through the Glebe was reduced to six months.

“At the first hint your road is going to be torn up … that’s when you start knocking on doors,” she explains.

While Glebe businesses had to cope with lower sales during the construction period from May to November last year, the impact was lessened by promotions such as “We Dig the Glebe” and lots of notification to customers that businesses were still open.

Lack of leadership hurts businesses

Mario de Marinis, owner of the Somerset Travel Agency, says the Glebe’s effective leadership and good communication between the city and the BIA is something his business area lacks.

His travel agency falls under the jurisdiction of the Somerset Chinatown BIA, which also saw construction begin in May. However, that BIA is without an executive director, and de Marinis says communication has broken down between the city and the business area.

De Marinis says the lack of leadership was noticed on the street. He adds the Somerset Chinatown BIA did nothing to lessen the impact or speed the redevelopment along the stretch of Somerset, which left his business and others inaccessible to customers.

The construction basically shut down Somerset in both directions for months. De Marinis says he lost 60 per cent of his business in the last year, and has to essentially re-launch his company because it has been stagnant for the last eight months.

Whether by GOBIA or more effective leadership within existing BIAs, de Marinis says more needs to be done, and done quickly, to give small businesses a stronger voice.

“BIAs can be fantastic if they’re run well, “ de Marinis says. “But sometimes … they just don’t get passionately involved enough to look after the interests of the small guy.”