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‘A significant adverse impact’: Downtown business owners say empty Ottawa offices are worsening their struggles

News

In May of this year, almost half of the people employed in Ottawa were still working from home. This figure stands at more than double the national rate. 

Thousands of public servants in the National Capital Region (NCR) who began working from home at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have not yet returned to their offices. Large towers owned or leased by the federal government remain largely unoccupied and unused save for routine maintenance and inspection.

The switch to remote work has been transformative, and possibly permanent. On March 16, 2020, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) stated public servants were to begin working remotely “wherever and whenever possible”. 

TBS president Mona Fortier has since said hybrid work is the future for public servants. Each federal department and agency will be responsible for developing its own hybrid work system. 

This shift to permanent hybrid work for the federal government will have implications across the country, but nowhere more than Ottawa/Gatineau due to their high proportion of government employees. From March 2017 to March 2021, an average of 41.8 percent of all public servants in Canada worked in the NCR.  

According to the Government of Canada, there were 127,092 public servants working in the NCR in March 2020. That amount increased to 134,817 in March 2021, just over a year after the pandemic began. 

The federal government has been criticized for continuing to leave large office buildings in downtown Ottawa deserted throughout the pandemic. Critics, like Conservative MP Marc Dalton, have called on the federal government to end its leases on empty buildings or sell the ones it currently owns. 

There were already concerns in 2016 about vacated buildings in the NCR either owned or leased by the federal government. Their cost at the time was more than $40 million in upkeep

A spokesperson from Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) says the department spent an annual average of $564 million over the last three fiscal years on maintaining and operating federal government buildings in the NCR. 

The story of continued remote work for the public service is one of more than vacant offices, however. Empty federal buildings have hurt Ottawa’s downtown businesses. A crucial number of their customers were public servants commuting from Ottawa’s residential neighbourhoods and suburbs. 

Devinder Chaudary owns the Aiana Restaurant Collective on O’Connor Street, a short walk from Parliament Hill. It opened in August 2020. 

“We opened after the onset of the pandemic. We were expecting approximately 50 percent of our guests from the federal workforce,” says Chaudary. “With less than 20 percent of the federal workers returning to work at all office towers surrounding our restaurant, we experienced a significant adverse impact.” 

According to Chaudary, Aiana’s revenue is less than 35 percent of their original projections. He expects public servants to return to in-person work downtown. 

It was reported in August by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents 70,000 public servants, that just 10 percent of their members want to return to their offices full-time. About 60 percent want to work from home permanently, and 25 percent want a hybrid system. 

“The last two years have been devastating for small businesses in downtown Ottawa. The business model of almost every business in downtown is based on nine-to-five foot traffic,” says Chaudary. 

Stuart MacKay is running for Ottawa City Council for the Somerset Ward in October’s municipal elections. Somerset contains much of Ottawa’s downtown core, including the neighbourhood of Centretown. MacKay believes the model for downtown businesses has to change. 

“We’re not going back to the Ottawa of 2019, and businesses will have to realize that,” says MacKay. “Already we’ve seen some businesses in the downtown core pivot from serving a commuter crowd and instead reaching out to the thousands who already live in the downtown core.” 

MacKay says that many of the older empty federal buildings in Ottawa are ripe for redevelopment into residential buildings. He argues this will create new opportunities for local businesses, like grocery and hardware stores. As a result, MacKay says downtown will become a residential rather than commuter neighbourhood. 

“There is a huge opportunity to create a brand new downtown community in Ottawa,” says MacKay. 

Michelle Groulx is the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas. She says Ottawa is experiencing something economists call the “Donut Effect”, where activity in the city centre has been gutted and transferred to surrounding suburbs, like Kanata and Nepean.

With summer ending and seasonal tourists departing, Groulx is nervous about how the onset of fall and winter will affect the Ottawa core’s remaining businesses. 

“There are, within 500 meters, six office buildings that are empty, a hundred thousand people who are not there, and that does impact the economy that’s surrounding it,” says Groulx. “There are businesses who are going to be considering closing come November this year.” 

Groulx says the federal government must make a decision regarding the empty buildings and have a plan for the fall. 

“Either tell people to go back to work or make a solid plan on what to do to make up for the lack of workforce,” says Groulx. “Convert buildings into mixed-use and residences and things like that, but there has to be that fall plan and it has to happen.” 

The Conservatives are about to select a new leader—Here’s how the vote will work

News

Of all the terms used to describe the Conservative Party of Canada’s method of selecting its leader, “simple” is rarely among them. 

On Saturday, September 10, the party’s seven-month-long leadership race will come to an end. By Sunday morning, barring complications, the public will know if Pierre Poilievre, Jean Charest, Leslyn Lewis, Roman Baber, or Scott Aitchison will lead the Tories into the fall parliament. 

The results were to be announced at a party convention at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre for which tickets had been sold for $150 and a lineup of speakers including former Defence Minister and leadership aspirant Peter MacKay was set to address the Conservative faithful. Ian Brodie, chair of the leadership election organizing committee, announced on Thursday that in light of Queen Elizabeth’s passing, the party was considering changes to the convention.

Yet notwithstanding these evolving details of the leadership announcement itself, the basic process for how the leader is chosen — including the party’s unique model for converting votes into points — is unchanged.

Only Conservative Party members can vote for the new leader, and only via mail-in ballot as per the party constitution. The deadline to purchase a membership passed on June 3, after which members began mailing in their ballots during the voting period, which concluded on September 6. 

Of the 678,702 members who were eligible to vote, the party reports that it received 437,854 ballots by the deadline — a roughly 65 per cent turnout. That is a similar turnout rate as was recorded in the 2020 leadership election.

The Conservatives use a ranked ballot system for selecting their leader that seeks to combine the principle of “one member, one voter” and incentives for leadership candidates to build a national network of supporters.

Leadership candidates earn points based on the percentage of party members who vote for them in each of Canada’s 338 federal ridings. Every party member’s vote is contained within a single riding. 

If there are three candidates in a hypothetical leadership election who receive 60 percent, 30 percent, and 10 percent in one riding, they will be awarded 60, 30, and 10 points, respectively. 

Ridings with 100 members or more can provide a maximum of 100 points. A riding with 101 members has the same 100 points as a riding with 2000 members. In ridings with fewer than 100 members, each vote within that riding is counted as a single point. For example, a riding with 80 members can only award 80 points to the different candidates. 

This is a relatively new rule, brought into effect at the party’s 2021 convention with 74 percent of all party delegates voting in favour of the change

“I think the experience in the past provided some food for thought in that ridings with very few Conservative members were instrumental in choosing a leader, which is not really fair to the voting members in ridings with a lot of Conservative support,” says Lori Turnbull. 

Turnbull is an associate professor and director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration. 

“Why should the party be as responsive to ridings with fewer Conservatives in them?” asks Turnbull. “Why should Calgary and Sydney (British Columbia) both have the same weight in choosing the leader, when Sydney hasn’t elected a Conservative in years?” 

The Conservative leadership election operates on a ranked ballot system.

Members in each riding rank the candidates on their numbered ballot according to their most favoured to least favoured option. 

For example, a voter whose favourite candidate is Jean Charest will mark him as number one. If their least favourite candidate is Roman Baber, Baber will be marked as number six. 

If no candidate receives 50 percent of the points after the first round’s votes are counted, the candidate with the least total points in that round is eliminated. 

Ballots with the eliminated candidate as their top choice will have the candidates that are ranked after them transferred to those candidates in the next round. 

For example, if a member ranks Leslyn Lewis as number one and Pierre Poilievre as number two, and Lewis is eliminated after a round of voting, Poilievre will become that member’s number one choice in the next round. 

The leadership election progresses on a round-by-round basis until one candidate receives 50 percent of all combined points, and all other candidates are eliminated. 

In the 2004 leadership election, featuring three candidates, Stephen Harper won in the first round by receiving 17,296 points, or 56 percent of all total points, on the first ballot. 

It took Andrew Scheer 13 rounds to win the 2017 leadership election with 17,222 points, beating 12 other candidates. Erin O’Toole received 19,271 points after three rounds to win the 2020 leadership election, defeating three other candidates. 

Five candidates will be on the ballot for this year’s leadership election. 

The length of the leadership race, which began in February, has been criticized as overlong. Turnbull believes the contest taking place over the summer was a bigger obstacle, saying people tend to ignore politics at that time of the year. 

The leadership race ends this Saturday, September 10. Turnbull says this date of the announcement of the winner is very helpful for the party.

“The new leader enters Parliament’s fall sitting as the new Leader of the Opposition, and has the opportunity to set the tone for the sitting,” says Turnbull. 

The Conservative Party leadership election takes place this Saturday at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa.