The Early Days of Westboro Village BIA by Dave Allston
The Westboro Business Improvement Area (BIA) quietly celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019. The organization, dedicated to bringing together local business owners to promote economic development and improve the streetscape of the local neighbourhood with a uniform, unified approach, has helped lead the evolution and development of a strong commercial core in Westboro. The story of the BIA, and its connected forerunner organizations is an interesting one, stretching back nearly 100 years.
After several years and a few false-starts, the Westboro Board of Trade (WBT) was formed at its inaugural meeting held in lawyer W. E. Haughton’s office on Richmond Road (above what is now Lulu Lemon) on February 1st, 1927. Eight local merchants led the way in forming the Board, to promote all that Westboro had to offer, while improving the economic, civic and social welfare of the community from Island Park Drive to Woodroffe.
Mortimer N. Cummings, lumber dealer north of Scott Street at Churchill, was elected its first President, and guided the WBT’s affiliation with the Ontario Associated Boards of Trade and Chambers of Commerce.
As part of the Board’s vision of establishing Westboro as a tourist destination, one of its first moves in 1927 was to establish Westboro Beach. After the loss of the saw mills in the 1880s, the beach was used by local residents and summer vacationers, but it was not built up or maintained in an official way. The WBT improved the beach, established adjoining camping grounds to lure summer tourists, and began operating the “Westboro Swimming Club”.
The Board also had their first major even when they decided to hold a Diamond Jubilee celebration that summer of 1927, separate from Ottawa’s.
Another key act from 1927 was the publishing of an 80-page promotional booklet, “History of Westboro – The Town of Possibilities”, which was used to promote Westboro across North America.
The optimism and excitement of 1927 took a turn with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. By the early 30s, shops in Westboro were closing in droves, and all promotion, special events, and local improvements were put on hold. Wartime efforts then became the focus, with remaining businesses focused more on contributing to Red Cross relief work.
The WBT ceased operating in the mid-late 1930s, and in January 1938, a new organization, the “Westboro Business Men’s Association” to help fill the void. Chaired by Paul Sanders, owner of the Westboro Electric Store, their initial goal was to establish a credit exchange within the village. The organization was short-lived.
The Westboro Board of Trade was re-established in January of 1946 as Westboro was exploding in the post-WWII boom. M.N. Cummings was again re-elected President. Within a year, the WBT had membership in the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and had adopted an official charter under the Boards of Trade Act, then considered a prestigious accomplishment for a local Board of Trade. Having a charter also allowed the WBT to have citizens of Nepean as members, beyond just business owners alone.
In 1951, the WBT led the way, with aid from the Ottawa Board of Control, of the erection of a small tourist reception centre to provide information to tourists arriving from the U.S., and other areas west of Ottawa. The building, located directly in the median where Richmond Road intersects with Carling Avenue, provided tourism information on Ottawa, but with a heavy Westboro flavour as well. It survived until around 1960.
In 1966, the WBT also built a fountain outside the old RMOC Social Services Building (originally a Hydro office) at 495 Richmond Road as their centennial project (at a cost of $10,000).
Another highlight of the 1960s, in the early years after Westboro was annexed to the City of Ottawa (despite the objections of many of its residents), was when the City added 50 parking meters on Richmond Road in June of 1962. The uproar amongst Westboro businesses led the city to agree to cancel the meters just one month later. The WBT continued to fight, as the City announced it would at first hood the meters, then chopped the tops off, then had the poles removed; all within six weeks of their original installation!
By the late 1960s, the WBT went dormant, and closures on Richmond Road was a growing problem, as malls and large complexes in the west end, as well as expanded traffic options out of the area led to Westboro’s business sector experiencing its worst decline since the Skead/Eddy saw mill burning in 1888 destroyed the entire local industry.
The WBT was rejuvenated in 1972 by David McGlade, manager of a Richmond Road finance company, when merchants realized that a group approach was needed to help improve area development, suffering from the new Parkway and Queensway and widened Carling Avenue bringing traffic into downtown Ottawa. The WBT accused Ottawa City Hall of
treating the Richmond Road business district “like a dying region”, and fought for improved parking restrictions, bus routes, and a positive solution to the vacant old streetcar line (now Byron Linear Park).
From late 1977 until early 1979, Westboro residents and merchants worked with city staff on a substantial Westboro Neighbourhood Study Plan, covering Island Park Drive to Denbury Avenue. (Four other neighbourhoods in Ottawa were concurrently completing plans of their own). Five committees (land use and zoning, recreation and social services, traffic, commercial and heritage) worked on the different sections of the Plan. Detailed proposals covered topics such as zoning, sidewalks and street lighting, street closings, traffic flow, parking, cycling, preservation of heritage buildings and rapid transit through Westboro. These proposals were then presented to the public for input, with the final Plan presented to City Council in the spring of 1979.
Ron Shouldice was a Chartered Accountant, with his own practice in Westboro. He was a part of the Neighbourhood Study discussions, and approached Mayor Marion Dewar for advice on how to improve Westboro’s business strip. Dewar suggested the concept of Business Improvement Areas, which had been established by the provincial government in the late 1960s, a new part of the Municipal Act that allowed an area to become a BIA. The key element being that BIAs must be initiated by the business owners themselves (if the BIA was imposed by the municipality, it could be simply seen as an additional form of business taxation).
By 1978, 70 communities in Ontario had used the BIA legislation. So Shouldice went to Toronto to investigate the Bloor-Jane-Runnymede BIA, Ontario’s first. He also met with representatives from Ottawa’s first BIA on Bank Street in the Glebe (which had taken an exceptionally long time to organize; he took many lessons learned from them). Shouldice almost singlehandedly led the charge from start to finish for Westboro to obtain a BIA.
In May of 1978, Shouldice and the WBT received permission from city hall to survey for the organization of a BIA. In the fall of 1978, the 128 Westboro businesses on Richmond between Tweedsmuir and Golden, and along Byron from Churchill to Golden were officially polled for their vote. Agreeing to enter into a BIA would mean all store owners and residents paying commercial tax would be levied roughly $2.50 per week into a fund to be used to attract more shoppers, “a self-help program”, as described by Shouldice. The plan for the year-one budget of $25,000 was to re-create a village atmosphere in Westboro, with facelifts to storefronts, improved street lighting, sidewalk benches, and landscaping.
It was thought that some smaller businesses and particularly those using offices on second floors of buildings may vote against the BIA. Though two-thirds support of all merchants was all that was required, when the November 18th deadline hit, not a single objection had come in. The BIA was approved to proceed. City Council passed the bylaw in January 1979, and the BIA was created. Ron Shouldice was the man to guide the BIA for the next ten years (he received a well-deserved Award of Merit from the Ontario BIA Association in April 1987 for all his work in Westboro).
Another offshoot of the Neighbourhood Study was the creation of Newswest, a new community paper for Kitchissippi, which launched its first issue in November 1978 (it would end its 40-year run in December of 2018). The creation of Newswest went hand-in-hand with the establishment of the BIA, both critical for supporting each other.
Also integral to the establishment of the BIA was local Alderman Chris Chilton, who committed during his fall 1978 election campaign to contributing $7,000 of his $17,000 salary as a councillor to help establish the BIA, Newswest and a ward council, along with contributing other charitable causes (such as sports equipment and ice time for the rent-to-income community in the ward). He impressively followed through on his noble commitments.
The BIA’s first step was to draw up a 5-to-10 year plan for the promotion and beautification of the area, with the help of landscape architects and planners. Through discussions wi
th Ottawa planning board and other levels of government, a major $476,000 streetscaping project was funded, with a grand opening celebration day in September of 1982, with a parade, sidewalk sales and various events. This was the first of what became the BIA’s annual signature event, Westboro Village Days, which ran annually until the late 1990s.
The BIA also worked diligently to obtain council approval on limiting building heights, restricting commercial use at ground level, a 1.5 meter setback for all new buildings to allow for streetscaping, and rules restricting ground floor use as commercial in mixed-use buildings, among others.
With the establishment of the BIA, the old Westboro Board of Trade simply morphed into the new organization, and since 1979, the BIA has been a strong force in advocating, advertising and promoting for Westboro’s business community. A model of success in BIA implementation that was not easy, but made possible through the vision of Westboro’s business leaders over 40 years ago, their continued teamwork over the years since, and particularly the dedicated work of Ron Shouldice, whose efforts continue to reap rewards so many years later.