Event planners left with a headache over alcohol bylaws

Eric Murphy, Centretown News
Local business owners and event planners have been having trouble moving licensed events outside.
A hundred people sit in the city hall council chambers for the Ottawa 2017 ideas forum. 

Jim Watson’s there, so is the rest of the 2017 task force and dozens of politicians, entrepreneurs, and event planners.

Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, local business owner Aaron Cayer walks up to the microphone:

“All right, who here likes to have fun?” 

It might say something, that after an hour of discussing ways to make Ottawa more fun in 2017, the audience could only respond to this question with mumbling and some nervous laughs. 

“Okay,” says Cayer, adjusting the microphone. “So we’re known as the city that doesn’t wanna have fun, but who here likes to have fun?”

This time the audience claps and whoops, obviously the answer Cayer was looking for. He went to the ideas forum to speak out about problems he’d run into trying to organize outdoor, alcohol licensed charity events in Ottawa. Specifically, he says the city denied his requests on three separate occasions. Cayer isn’t alone in his frustrations either, even seasoned event planners run into obstacles trying to organize public events downtown, especially public events where alcohol is served.

“This has been challenging for me,” admits Cayer, two months after the ideas forum. Sitting in antique skate shop, the store he owns, Cayer’s ditched the Hawaiian shirt and tucked his brown hair under a baseball cap. One of the most frustrating things about not getting approval for the events, Cayer says, is that he still doesn’t know why his proposals were rejected.

“One of the ones we didn’t get through was a family barbeque,” he says. The lunch was raising money for youth and harmony house, an organization that shelters women and children escaping violent homes.

“We thought there’s no way there would be a challenge to doing that,” says Cayer. But the proposal was denied. “Sometimes there’s legitimate concerns, maybe a noise issue. We have no idea.”
Cayer blames issues like this on the many stages involved in not only receiving a temporary alcohol license, but in how complicated the entire planning process is. Organizers have to receive approval and permits for almost every aspect of the event, food, location, drinks and music. Then they fill out the appropriate paperwork and often pay fees for licensing and location. Each step can be looked over by multiple municipal officials.

“The crux of the issue is there’s so much red tape, and there’s so much bureaucracy that it’s very challenging, especially for small event organizers, to get anything done,” says Cayer.

Often organizers are from small businesses or non-profit organizations who don’t fully understand the application system. However, even much more experienced organizers can have trouble navigating the paperwork.

Christine Leadman has been the executive director of the Bank Street BIA for almost a year now and before that she headed two other Ottawa business improvement associations. She knows how to plan an event, and as a former city councillor, she understands municipal documents.

But when it came to organizing glow fair, the festival that took over eight blocks of downtown Bank Street in June, even Leadman ran into problems.  

“There were some stumbling blocks,” she says. “There’s all these different areas you need to get all the information. It can be very complicated.”
One of the largest challenges Leadman’s organization faced in planning glow fair was organizing and paying the police officers that Ottawa bylaw requires for large outdoor events. She’s fine with needing officers to redirect traffic, but Leadman says the number she had to hire to provide security may have been excessive.

After already hiring their own private security, the Bank BIA had to hire police to attend each widely populated area of the event. For the hundreds of people at their main stage they had to provide six officers and four were needed at the second, smaller stage.

“It was very expensive,” says Leadman, noting that even in the less busy areas at least two officers were always needed. She didn’t specify how much this cost, but according to Const. Marc Soucy, a media representative for the Ottawa Police, these officers are generally paid time and a half for this work, although they can volunteer their time if they want and the police force approves it.
While these extra costs were annoying for Leadman, they could cripple a smaller event run with less sponsors.
Because Aaron Cayer’s charities would have alcohol present, he says he would have had to hire police as well, even for events with only 50 to 100 visitors during the day.
“You have to hire two officers,” he says. “That’s like $2,800 for a non-profit trying to raise $1000.”

Whether Cayer’s cost estimates are accurate or not, hiring two police officers for an afternoon still represents a significant investment for small businesses running a charity. They would likely have to use some of the money raised for their cause to pay the officers.

Officer Soucy says that the police presence is a response to issues at events in the past, although he did not specify any individual events. He says private security cannot be hired because police are “specifically trained for impairment,” and therefore more able to deal with any issues that could arise.
Because so many of the laws affecting outdoor licensed events come from city hall, many planners have been looking towards the October municipal elections to see a change.

Jeff Morrison is one of the candidates for councillor in Somerset ward and the former president of the Centretown Community Health Centre. He hasn’t heard any complaints about alcohol licensing, but he’s run into a few other issues trying to organize his own events.
Last November, Morrison arranged a camp out in Dundonald Park called “24 hours of homelessness” to raise money for Operation Come Home. The group of eight campers stayed in the park overnight, no alcohol was sold.
“I think I had to send a dozen emails back and fourth with the city, and pay a $50 fee just to use a little section of Dundonald,” he says.

Morrison argues the city should streamline the process for getting licenses, make everything online and reduce some of the fees. On top of that, he says that if trained servers and managers are attending the event, police presence shouldn’t be necessary.

“Bank street, Preston. We should be encouraging their use,” he says. “When we put in place barriers for people to access these things they won’t get used.”
One of Morrison’s competitors and another frontrunner for the Somerset councillor seat, Catherine McKenney says that she would do her best to facilitate these events, but it’s important to remember that safety is as important as fun.

“Anytime you have a large group they have to be regulated,” she says. “You always will need some police presence at some events.”

Looking at the headache that can come out of getting an alcohol license for a public event can be, one might ask if it’s even worth it. Cayer claims there are a few reasons he’d like to serve beer at his events. For one thing, alcohol has good margins, it brings people in to an event and the price of each drink brings a good return to a charity. To understand this, just look at the price difference between a beer in a pub and a beer at the LCBO.

He also says that licensed events also fit with Ottawa’s downtown craft beer culture. In organizing these charities, Cayer has teamed up with local establishments like Beau’s Brewery or Local 613, both part of this expanding market.

“And it’s fun,” he finally says, shrugging.