A recent OpEd - City Staff and Economic Development

Posted by Chris Penton on

Farmers market season is upon us. Everyone loves farmers markets. They tingle with all the right vibes – local produce, community, health, outdoors. We have been running the Beechwood Market in our corner of town for seven years. It is community driven, respected and fun.

Back in April, we made the tough decision to move the whole operation to a Click and Collect model. Although the Province has deemed farmers markets essential services, the reasons for which most people attend farmers markets would be absent – tasters, banter, common areas, freedom to move about, vendor engagement, live music, special events, kids’ playground.  The shift for vendors, customers and management has been considerable. It has been a lot of work, but is the safe, sensible and, at the moment, sustainable choice.

Because we operate in a City run park, we have a few extra layers of tape to cut through each year in order to open up. Because the City has no official standards for farmers market operations, it considers us an event in the same category as the Hope Beach Volleyball Tournament, City Folk, Bluesfest. In a nutshell, we pay the same as any one-off event would to rent the park…times 20 weeks. This makes for a hefty bill.

Nonsensical in a normal year, I was hopeful the City would have a plan in place for us in these unconventional times.

There had been economic task forces struck, food trucks afforded spots in City parking lots, tax breaks to landlords granted and patio expansions given free of charge. Surely, a local farmers market supporting 25 small businesses would also be cut a bit of slack.

After six weeks of back and forth with the project lead, Ottawa Public Health and the Councilor’s office, I was granted a Zoom call with the City management staff involved to make the final moves towards opening our Click and Collect. There were to be seven staff on the call. Seven staff to address our wee little market in our tiny park!

Before getting on the call, I quickly Googled a few of the middle mamagers to get a bit of background. The first search result to appear was their spot on the Sunshine list. At least three of the staff made well over $100,000 each year. It is a fair bet that the other four were not far off. After some quick calculations based on 100K a year, I surmised that my hour long Zoom call could cost the taxpayer close to $500.

Calls with City staff are always a bit robotic. They typically start out by commending their colleagues on a job well done on getting everyone to this point. It is soon followed by a statement that each does not know exactly what the others do. They always listen to my asks, the concerns I express around my limited budget and my challenges with the operational restrictions on City property.

Always cautious not to encourage or commend, they get through the call and assign follow up. With sufficient badgering, the follow up eventually comes with little of the requested change. This shuffle has been going on for four years.

I cannot blame middle management for their complacency. It is a well-fostered culture that has ensured Ottawa’s economic mediocrity for decades.

But, I cannot forgive the harm that this inflexibility does to those of us in the trenches, trying to make a go of it. Our efforts to create jobs, build community character and generate tax revenue are met with obstructions, a lack of understanding and the constant need to jump through hoops. Many of the hoops  being  simply impermeable.

In most workplaces, a culture of complacency and entitlement would be examined and dealt with from the top down. In our obdurate bureaucracy, the flaw may indeed be imbedded at the top. There still exists a boys club that pulls the strings at City Hall. The most obvious example is the LRT. Without delving into that debacle, it is the old club tango of the established sticking up for the established. City Manager, Transit Manager, Transit Chair, big money contractors all have much to lose by taking accountability.

When I deal with City staff, on a much smaller level, the same tango is performed. You will rarely find a staffer that will rock the boat. Why jeopardize over 100K a year for a small business that might disrupt the comfortable system in its hunt for change and improvement?

We live in a consumer driven society. The recent urban boundary expansion passed by Council proved that. Build it and they will buy. I don’t fully agree with the outcome of that lengthy debate, but why not let the same rationale play a part in guiding small business policy in the Capital? Give us the tools and freedoms to operate successful businesses, serve the demands of the public and create a bigger tax base.

Staff makes decisions, sometimes with the guidance of Council, that affect small business. But, do they truly understand the results these decisions have at the ground level?

COVID showed us that the City had no plan for the economic downturn. A totally reactive performance, they are just catching up to what could and should have been in place in March. But, has there ever been a good plan for economic development in Ottawa?

The City is rich with economic development groups – BIAs, Invest Ottawa, an Economic Development  department of dozens at City Hall – but it is systemic change that is needed to see Ottawa take the required leap to economic distinction.

Change is a difficult concept for those who take little risk in their daily lives. Senior City staff and elected officials should incorporate more ideas from those that are taking the risks. That consideration could only help us make Ottawa the City it can truly be.

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