Downtown Ottawa businesses pivot as federal office towers remain empty

Local business owners in downtown Ottawa, who have relied for years on the traffic from federal government workers, are finding themselves planning for a future without them.

Ninety per cent of Ottawa residents have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, stadiums are packed, restaurants are open to full capacity, but in downtown Ottawa, many offices remain empty because the city’s largest workforce is still working remotely.

The lunch hour used to be the time when Amir Rahid and the staff at Grounded Kitchen & Coffeehouse prepared for the rush of thousands of federal public servants pouring out of nearby office towers in search of a snack or a meal.

That was then.

“I feel it’s more important to look at what we’re dealing with here and now,” says Rahid. “The past year, we’ve worked pretty hard on our new model which is more evenings, nights, a cool BBQ menu, a vibrant bar scene, stuff like that.”

Lately, Rahim does notice more people in the area. Some of his regular customers have returned, but in a hybrid model.

“They’re booking space to come to work and colleagues are connecting together at the same time and designating a day to come to work and make an event out of it,” he says. “So they’ll come in have coffee, go to work, and maybe some happy hour types of stuff, and I’m seeing a bit more of that happening on a regular basis.”

According to the Treasury board of Canada, the federal government employs more than 120,000 people in the Ottawa region and occupies 40 per cent of the office space in the city.

Mayor calls for a return to workplace plan

While some businesses have been able to pivot, many others are suffering and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says it’s imperative to have employees working in the downtown core.

“We know that the federal public service helps to keep these small businesses going—whether it’s a dry cleaner, a restaurant, or a shoe repair shop—and the sooner we get federal employees back, the better it is for the local economy of downtown and throughout Ottawa,” says Watson. “We’ve already seen some of our staff come back at the local level and now we want to see the same thing happen with the federal government. They’ve been really good partners with us, providing funding, and this is one more ask we have of the federal government and really of any employer.”

City councillors, meanwhile, will continue to meet virtually. Watson says the city clerk has recommended not making any changes until January.

“We want to able to go back to a system where anyone who wants to come to a meeting, including the media, has a right to do so but, right now, we’re limited to the number of people.”

There has been no clear timeline given as to when federal employees will return to the office. For Rahid, if they do come back, it’s going to a bonus, but never again his bread and butter.

“Hope is a great thing but you can invest it in all kinds of different places,” says Rahid. “The things in the past are further in the rear view mirror for me. It’s still there, and there’s a bit of a scar but, at the same time, if we focus on what we’re doing now that seems to be delivering fruits, it should pay off in the long run.”