‘We need action now’: Ottawa businesses clamouring for return of federal workers

It was a bustling day in downtown Ottawa Tuesday as hundreds of Members of Parliament took in the Throne Speech; Canada’s 44th parliament now underway but while the halls of parliament are packed, the offices just blocks away sit mostly empty.

“We need action now. We can’t have a 10-year rebuilding plan; we need a transition plan from the federal government right now,” Stewart Cattroll, the co-owner of Freshii on Bank Street said.

Cattroll opened his restaurant at the beginning of the pandemic near the intersection of Bank Street and Somerset Street West, anticipating a steady flow of federal workers into his restaurant once they returned downtown.

“We understand what it used to be like, that was kind of the expectation going in, it’s not been like that at all,” he said.

Instead, his restaurant has struggled and Cattroll, a lawyer by trade, has had to supplement the business with his own cash.

“Sales are off at least 40 per cent, depending on the month, 35 to 40 per cent, so it’s been a very rough time,” he added.

The thousands of federal public servants who would typically patronize businesses in the downtown core haven’t disappeared, instead they’re working from home and serving a new host of businesses that have sprung up across Ottawa.

“We actually saw about 20 businesses open between March of 2020 and now during the pandemic and very few closed so far,” Tannis Vine, executive director of the Heart of Orléans BIA, said.

According to Vine, the pandemic has helped bring new money and ideas to Orléans, solving a problem they’ve been struggling to deal with.

“Before the pandemic, we actually had a task force created called Balance Orléans where we looked at how many of our bilingual workforce are being shipped west to work and 80 per cent our of workforce are being shipped west. When the pandemic hit, we no longer saw that as a requirement because we had all the workers working in Orléans,” Vine said.

Alexa Fahel owns one of those new businesses; she opened Lushious Envy Beauty & Café Bar one year ago in the middle of the second wave.

“I felt like every lockdown was a sign that I shouldn’t be doing this but I continued and I’m very happy that it went through,” Fahel said.

Now established and with a familiar set of clients, Fahel says she’s not overly concerned about the impacts a return to the office could have on her regular customers.

“I think (last-minute appointments) will kind of fade out a bit just because people won’t be five minutes away, they won’t be here if they’re working downtown. But other than that I think it will be okay,” she said.

Both Fahel and Cattroll believe a hybrid model could work well to allow customers to continue to visit establishments in both neighbourhoods, but without a planned return to the office, those downtown are left waiting.

“If the federal government is not going to come back to their office space, to that real estate, I think they owe the community. I think they have an obligation to downtown Ottawa to create a transition plan so we can transition into something different,” Cattroll said.

On Saturday, Mayor Jim Watson tweeted he was working with Liberal MP Mona Fortier to bring more federal employees back to the city core.

Working with @MonaFortier to Make that happen
— Jim Watson (@JimWatsonOttawa) November 20, 2021

“A lot of people love working from home, I get that, that’s great, but I think we need that balance and we need the federal government to work with us and the private sector to ensure that there are some people starting to come back in a safe and orderly fashion to help revitalize the downtown core,” Watson said in an interview with CTV Ottawa, Tuesday.

“We need people to come back in the core, whether it’s on every second day or two days out of five, to revitalize some of the restaurants, the small businesses,” he added.

Until that happens, those in the core say they will continue to wait.

“We are doing everything we can to hold on to better times,” Cattroll said.