The proposed “grant” to the hotel at the Ottawa International Airport has once again put a key component of the City’s economic development strategy (community improvement grants) in the news.  Similar to the controversy around the Porsche Dealership grant, the battle lines have been drawn. The health of the local Ottawa economy seems to be on everyone’s mind in 2023.  The consulting firm Ernst & Young (no, not McKinsey this time!) has been engaged by the City of Ottawa to advance an economic development strategy for the upcoming Council term.  More recently, the Ottawa Board of Trade partnered with Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, the City of Ottawa, Le Regroupement des gens d’affaires de la Capitale nationale (RGA), Ottawa Tourism, and Invest Ottawa to host a city-wide economic summit.  Over 125 business and community leaders recently gathered to discuss key drivers for economic growth, including the new arena and event centre at LeBreton, downtown revitalization, the ByWard market, attracting talent and regional economic development. In other words, “business as usual”. These mainstream approaches to local economic development, including the community improvement grant program, have a long history of promising “economic development” and “jobs” but this does not always lead to an inclusive, equitable local economy. Often it delivers gentrification, loss of affordable housing and commercial space and no employment opportunities for those left out of the job market.  I want to make it clear, I absolutely support many, if not all of the initiatives being discussed as part of the City’s economic development strategy.  However, what is missing at the City are policies that ensure that these major infrastructure and development projects, intentionally build a local economy that works for all of our citizens. In other words, no more reliance on “trickle down” theories of economic development!

It’s time for the City of Ottawa to formally adopt “Community Wealth Building” (CWB) as an integral part of its economic development ecosystem.  What would this look like?  A social procurement and community benefit agreement policy would be a great place to start.  Social procurement means leveraging social value through existing purchasing, while Community Benefit Agreements leverage social value through infrastructure and development projects, value that is monitored, measurable and yes, accountable to the community. This value can include, hiring from equity seeking groups in the neighbourhood of the development, or from social enterprises that employ these workers The multiplier effect of buying local has been well documented.  Local impact investment funds, support for social enterprise development, expanded supported employment and apprenticeship programs for those facing barriers to participating in the local economy, are just a few examples of what we need to build an inclusive, equitable local economy. The good news for the citizens of Ottawa, is that we have organizations working on most of the CWB tools mentioned above.  The bad news is that they are doing so in isolation, depending on one-year grants from a small Community Economic Development fund and other locally based funders.  They are an after thought, and are not seen as being integral to economic development in Ottawa.  This has got to change. We need organizations that work in the CWB sector to receive stable adequate funding similar to other economic development organizations in Ottawa and perhaps more importantly to be seen as an integral part of the City’s economic development ecosystem. When we integrate Community Wealth Building as part of how we “do Business” it may be much easier to garner support for the expenditure of public dollars on major infrastructure projects.  It’s time to do so.

George Brown is a lawyer, former City of Ottawa Councillor and Chair of United Way East Ontario.
60 River Garden Private|
Ottawa, ON K1V 1M8



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