Ottawa's revised liquor rules spark controversy ahead of 2017 celebrations
Published Thursday, December 15, 2016 6:08AM EST
With 2017 just around the corner, the City of Ottawa has loosened some of its liquor rules in a bid to draw more people to Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.
But don’t expect things in the quiet capital to look like Mardi Gras in New Orleans quite yet.
The revised policy makes it easier for event organizers to apply for liquor licences. Bars and restaurants across the city will also have access to exemptions allowing them to stay open as late as 4 a.m. during special events. Under provincial law, the sale of alcohol at a licensed establishment must stop at 2 a.m. On New Year’s Eve, alcohol can be served until 3 a.m.
“Event organizers…will see that this is a big step and a big improvement versus the previous policy,” Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury told CTV News.
But many business owners and those who represent them at city hall are lamenting what they call a needlessly conservative reassessment of the 12-year-old rules.
The Bourbon Street model
In November, the ByWard Market BIA proposed that the city pilot a Bourbon Street model, both to benefit local businesses and to enhance visitors’ experience of the area.
“What we wanted people to be able to do was just purchase alcohol from one of those establishments, but then be able to stand on the street,” Jasna Jennings, the BIA’s executive director told CTV News.
Under this model, businesses in the same area would be able to apply for a collective permit allowing their patrons to move freely within a designated outdoor area carrying alcoholic drinks purchased inside one of the bars or restaurants. In the event that any rules are broken, the businesses would share the consequences equally.
This licensing system is allowed by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, the province’s booze regulator.
But despite the success of similar arrangements in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, Ottawa councillors turned down the BIA’s suggestion, citing public safety and health concerns.
“You wouldn’t be able to walk in and out of locations because…there are all sorts of safety and licensing issues that remain,” said Fleury, whose ward includes the Market, one of Ottawa’s most vibrant centres for night life.
Under the current model, event organizers can apply for a license to serve alcohol in the beer tent format found at many music festivals. Nearby businesses, however, will be excluded from the events.
But Jennings maintains that the businesses she represents are more than qualified enough and have a right to serve alcohol at these events.
“If they don’t do things properly, their license is at risk, so when you look at risk management, it’s a much safer bet to work with the existing businesses,’ she said. “We shouldn’t be running a whole event on their front step when they’re not getting any of the customers and they’re sitting there empty twiddling their thumbs.”
'The city that fun forgot'
Those business owners see this as a missed opportunity both they and their patrons would’ve welcomed.
“Ottawa is definitely ready for something new, something fun,” Kristen Bradley, the promotions and marketing manager of the Heart and Crown, one ByWard’s most popular pubs, told CTV News.
Bradley said city council’s reluctance on the issue won’t help draw the big crowds the city is after in 2017, nor will it help Ottawa shed its longstanding reputation as “the city that fun forgot.”
“I think the city really needs to look at the bigger picture when it comes to having fun or allowing people to have fun,” she said. “As business owners, we can only do so much to attract people to our establishments, but in the end, it’s the city that has to draw the people in.”
City to consider policy's effectiveness
Fleury said that while the policy won’t change for 2017, the city will take a close look at its effectiveness at the end of that year.
“There’s a report on the success and challenges of the model that is already planned for the end of 2017,” he said. “At that time, discussion of where to go next or if we’ve done enough will be looked at.”
As far as Jennings is concerned, moving Ottawa’s liquor laws forward in a way that balances public safety and business interests is simply a matter of taking the time to have an open conversation.
“There’s never been a proper discussion, which is kind of what we’d asked for,” she said. “Don’t just close the door on this.”
With files from CTV Ottawa’s Annie Bergeron-Oliver