Firestone says throw out zoning bylaws 0
SEAN CHASE Accomplished businessman Bruce Firestone, who led the effort to win Ottawa an NHL franchise, addresses Thursday’s Bridges to Better Business conference, hosted by Enterprise Renfrew County and the Upper Ottawa Valley Chamber of Commerce.
To survive in this economy, business and community leaders in Renfrew County must be prepared to accept change, says the man who brought the Ottawa Senators back to the NHL.
Bruce Firestone told a gathering of small business owners and entrepreneurs Thursday that municipal councils need to throw out their zoning bylaws in order to reinvigorate downtowns suffering from degradation.
In many ways, villages and towns should aspire to become the Bedford Falls of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” insisted the real estate developer who led the effort to successfully win an NHL franchise for Ottawa over 20 years ago.
“We built better cities in the 1930s than we do today,” said Mr. Firestone, who delivered his keynote address to the annual Bridges to Better Business conference at the Pembroke Best Western. “If you go down main street after main street you are going to see billiard halls, pawn shops, vacancies and girlie clubs. Nothing of that is going to work. You should take your zoning codes, burn them and let people live there and do their thing, and then the coffee shops will come.”
What happened is that architects stopped planning urban spaces and municipal planners took over, said Mr. Firestone, adding, as an example, that many public places in Ottawa are deserted because there are no vendors or attractions to draw the people in. Today, planners would rather tear down landmarks to make way for commercial businesses or franchises in order to capitalize on the property taxes they will bring in. While the added revenue is nice, he said it wastes the opportunity to make these downtown cores more attractive for visitors.
The event, which had 156 people registered, was hosted by Enterprise Renfrew County in partnership with the Upper Ottawa Valley Chamber of Commerce. The day-long conference included a panel of entrepreneurs that discussed strategies they used to aid in their success, a trade show and interactive learning session.
“It’s a great opportunity to bring businesses together to hear from other entrepreneurs,” Lorraine Mackenzie, executive director of the Upper Ottawa Valley Chamber of Commerce.
With his vast experience as president of Terrace Investments and his efforts not only with the Senators but the Ottawa Rough Riders, Mr. Firestone provided the audience with ideas and concepts he believes will improve the region’s economic prospects. What the business community needs to figure out, he added, is how does the county cope with the change that is inevitable to keep them competitive in the marketplace. He believes the addition of the Ottawa Senators to the NHL in 1992 made the national capital a tier one destination for major corporations who would only be attracted to places with major sports franchises.
“We felt the Sens would have an impact on the community,” he said. “We had an impact way beyond having a team to cheer for. We brought people together and they thought they were part of something bigger than themselves.”
For this region to realize its full potential, it will require a unified effort that everyone can get behind, much in the same way Ottawans came together for this fledgling hockey team.
“We have to have a feeling in this community, in Renfrew County, that we’re part of something special and if we don’t get that it’s going to be very difficult to change the psychology of the community and its economic prospects,” said Mr. Firestone noting future generations need a reason to invest their lives and dollars here. “If you don’t create economic opportunity you are going to lose your young people to Ottawa.”
Mr. Firestone pointed out that waiting for government funding through grants is not necessarily the answer adding self capitalization will help businesses get off the ground.
“Government money can be useful in small dribs and drabs at crucial stages, but often the greatest, hardest, strongest enterprises in your community are started with nothing,“ he said.
Today, communities are better off investing in leisure, art, design, entertainment, events, museums and meeting places. He explained that every visitor to Renfrew County will spend an estimated $100 per day. Any business, even office buildings, can incorporate some leisure component, he added.
Mr. Firestone recommended the county stop printing brochures and develop its own app, form a group of mentors who can assist and advice new entrepreneurs, and make physical changes to how its downtown cores look.
“You must make a physical change to your community because a physical change is an indication to people that you care about your community, that you are serious about change,“ he said.
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist