When it comes to perspectives on what it’s like to run a business in Ottawa, Karla Briones offers a multitude. She is the founder of her own consulting agency for underrepresented entrepreneurs, a business advisor for Invest Ottawa, the franchisee of a Freshii restaurant as well as two Global Pet Foods locations, and a professor at Algonquin College.
Like so many other business owners, Briones was hit hard by the pandemic. Pet stores were deemed unessential and her Freshii location lost 90 per cent in sales. “It’s been very tiring as an owner, because you have to figure out what you’re going to do as a leader, while remaining calm and keeping your staff calm as well,” Briones says.
At Global Pet Foods, she worked with her team to take orders by phone, leaving walkie-talkies outside the store for customers without cellphones. “Our phone was ringing off the hook,” Briones says. “We had to get three phone lines.” Within six months, Briones launched an online store with thousands of inventory items. Sales skyrocketed as younger people started shopping at the store.
Throughout the pandemic, the city has been working to support entrepreneurs like Briones through such initiatives as the Economic Recovery Task Force. Now, with upcoming turnover at city council, there’s an opportunity for business owners like Briones to imagine what the future Ottawa might look like — and to articulate what is needed.
For Briones, the answer is simple: more support for local businesses. She immediately calls out the lack of organizations that represent the business interests of a neighbourhood — commonly referred to as a business improvement area (BIA), a term first coined for Toronto’s Bloor Village in 1970. Typically made up of business owners and councillors, they are not-for-profit groups that support merchants of all types with projects that will attract more shoppers to the area. Once there is enough support for the creation of a BIA, the city can formally set the geographical borders. These associations are then funded by a tax on neighbourhood businesses. Money is spent on improvements to the area — flower boxes, for example — and together the entrepreneurs can put forward a united front.
“There are several parts of the city where there is not a BIA, [and] some of the local businesses don’t have a collective voice,” she says. This is the case for Kanata South, where one of Briones’ pet stores is located. She thinks a BIA could help her with current challenges such as inflation and lack of staffing.
While acknowledging that it’s not solely a city issue, Briones says she would love to see the implementation of a BIA in the area. “It’s a growing part of the city with many businesses going in,” she says. “It’s a very mature part of the city — I’m just surprised that there’s not a BIA.”
As the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of BIAs (OCOBIA), Michelle Groulx works to bolster the various associations that advocate for local businesses. Groulx says that BIAs and businesses are looking to city council for direction on what it means to live and work in Ottawa, especially with many workers not commuting downtown everyday.
“Will this next city council start to consider supporting the conversion of buildings from office to residential, and will they work with all levels of government to create more housing in the downtown core to start that transition?” asks Groulx.
Now and for the foreseeable future, Groulx says, businesses will be dealing with labour market challenges. “Everyone is having a challenge in hiring, recruiting, and staffing business,” she says. “We’re talking food services, we’re talking high tech, we’re talking retail.” Another major issue is rising costs. “Affordability for the business to be here, and affordability for staff to be able to live and work here — [businesses] believe that council can certainly act upon those things.”
“We hope to see a council that is invested in economic development as a part of the holistic benefit of Ottawa,” Groulx says. “When you’re investing in economic development, you’re also investing in more people living and working in the city.”
It’s a philosophy that Sonya Shorey, vice-president of marketing and communications at Invest Ottawa, would agree with. While technically a separate agency, the city is Invest Ottawa’s biggest partner; the two work together to reach mutual economic goals. As efforts are put into talent acquisition and growth, “how do we do it with diversity, equity, and inclusion at the core, so that [companies] can grow and thrive [alongside] communities benefiting in an equitable way?” she asks.
And if the future city council was to ask Shorey what her vision is for Ottawa? “I see us as needing to zero in on some of the greatest differentiators, opportunities and strengths we have to bring to bear on our world,” she says, based on what she’s hearing from local entrepreneurs. “Ottawa has a chance to lead the world — and in many, many areas.”