The voices of Sparks Street business owners fall on deaf ears

By Brian Whitwham

One might think the future of Sparks Street would be based on the wishes of its small business owners. Think again.

Revitalising the street is a longstanding concern. But to be heard, the small business owners will have to cut through the red tape of two federal departments and the City of Ottawa.

In August, the Sparks Street Mall Business Improvement Association conducted a survey for the National Capital Commission. The NCC wanted to find out what business owners thought about different ideas to attract the public such as moving the green kiosks or giving the street a theme. The NCC wanted to use the survey results to make plans together with their own proposed development for Sparks Street.

It’s now November and the results haven’t even been compiled. The street’s association says the surveys will be presented to a vision committee at the end of the month. There were only 12 questions on the survey, each of which could be answered with either yes or no, along with some space for comment. That shouldn’t have taken so long for the association to analyze.

This sort of inefficiency discourages participation from small business. But small businesses also must shoulder some of the blame. Only 28 of the 98 surveys were actually returned.

There seems to be two reasons for the lack of response. Some businesses were too busy with the summer rush. Others felt that no matter what their answers were, their opinions wouldn’t be considered.

The vision committee will present its findings to a board, including representatives from the NCC, Public Works and Government Services Canada and the City of Ottawa. After committee review, the board will send recommendations to the NCC.

The board only has the authority that’s given to it by the NCC, who along with Public Works, owns most of the properties on Sparks Street. And there’s no guarantee that the NCC will listen to the board’s reccomendations. The NCC’s representative could simply tell the board what was decided and he wouldn’t have to offer any explanation. This is why many small businesses on Sparks Street feel that the board doesn’t represent their interests.

To make matters worse, the buildings along Sparks Street are under federal jurisdiction, while the street itself is under City control. Any major construction would likely require cooperation between the NCC and the city. This could greatly prolong the process.These factors leave smaller businesses feeling separated from discussions of the street’s future.

One merchant, asked about the quality of communication between small businesses and the NCC, said she didn’t know because she’d never spoken to the NCC. Her business has been on Sparks Street for seven years.

This isn’t to say the NCC is deliberately ignoring these merchants. It may be ready to take the board’s input whole-heartedly. But due to the lack of transparency in its past decision making, the public and small businesses don’t know how much consideration those recommendations will get.

If the NCC wants to appear more legitimate, the current system will have to change. Government officials will have to stop hiding behind insignificant boards and start speaking to the people who give Sparks Street its spirit and charm— its small businesses.