ByWard Merchants Want Immediate Action Not More ‘Talk’ From City Officials

A group of merchants from Ottawa’s historic ByWard Market are beyond frustrated. Many gathered Tuesday with a panel of city officials and Councillor Stephanie Plante to air their grievances and ask the city to take immediate action.

Top of mind is safety. Chantal, owner of Schad Boutique, has been robbed twice in the last two weeks and is looking for the city to refocus on the market and restore it to the vibrant area it once was.

Restaurant owner Dave stated nonchalantly that he is robbed every other week, but beyond police response times, he feels the city needs Bylaw foot patrols in the Market to work proactively to prevent disruptive behaviour. He offered the example of the very vocal religious activists who clear George Street patios with loud sermons or the weed smokers who have the same effect.

He believes that if Bylaw officers are on foot, the preacher could be shooed along before his speaker is set up and the megaphone connected.

Councillor Plante responded that the province regulates Bylaw. Still, she is open to pushing for changes and stated that she is aware of a successful campaign in Hamilton, Ontario, that resulted in changes to local Bylaw regulations.

Among those echoing concerns for enhanced safety was merchant and area resident Joseph, who said he had to fight off an attacker brandishing a knife and recently even had to watch a man burn. He addressed the safe injection sites and said, “It’s a joke.” In his emotional plea for change, he stated, “My tax dollars are being wasted every day.”

Oliver, who owns an area barber shop, said that besides being a business owner, he also frequents the ByWard Market at night to take advantage of its vibrant nightlife. He has observed that an enhanced police presence after dark serves as a deterrent to crime and wishes that some version of this could be implemented during the daytime hours.

Kalin McCluskey, policy director for Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, told the assembled group that the mayor’s office is aware of the issues and “We are doing what we can with the tools we have.” Despite making the Market a focus of his 2022 mayoral campaign, the mayor was absent from the meeting.

McCluskey’s words were little comfort to the business owners who are losing money daily because customers are afraid. The merchants all relayed similar messages: stories of crime on the nightly news, homeless people sleeping on the streets, and the open use of drugs are keeping customers from frequenting their businesses.

McCluskey stated that the mayor will sit on the soon-to-be-launched ByWard Market District Authority (BMDA ) that replaces the old ByWard Market BIA. Zach Dayler, executive director of Ottawa Markets, told merchants that the new body will be results-focused; however, that was followed by news that the BMDA is preparing for its launch in the spring of 2024.

Local businesses made it clear that they can not wait another nine months for logos, signage and policy directions to be ready from this new bureaucracy. Business owners need change now; livelihoods are at stake, and there are real safety concerns with stabbing and mounting break-ins.

The master plans and good intentions expressed by the city officials were positive, but it does not alleviate the issues of business owners who need to make money to pay rent, taxes and employees. Area merchants need immediate action to alleviate the crime that is directly related to drug use.

In his opening remarks, Court Curry from the City of Ottawa stated that the city is looking to turn the market into a rival of Toronto’s Distillery District but acknowledged that there are several competing elements, including opioid and homelessness crises, that make it challenging. Councillor Plante implored merchants who live outside the Market to voice their concerns with councillors in their home ridings to make the issue city-wide and not just a Market-centered problem.

The proposed plans, boards, and committees are well-intentioned, but how long can ByWard Market businesses operate in crime-infested conditions if customers are afraid and stop coming?

The merchants of the ByWard Market need an intervention now before they are forced to shut their doors.

To read more about politics failing Lowertown, read Michael Bussière’s article Lowertown be Damned – We’re Reducing Harm which addresses the mismanagement by multiple levels of government that has resulted in a very dangerous situation.