On a cold, snowy Wednesday night, they met in a crowded Bridgehead coffee shop, almost like a blind date.
Shawn Menard is the president of the Centretown Citizens’ Community Association (CCCA). Glenn Crawford is spearheading the Village Initiative, the group agitating for rainbow flags on Bank St. The following is an extended transcript of their conversation.
Capital Xtra: I thought we+d start by getting Shawn to tell us what the Centretown Citizens’ Community Association does, and then we’ll get Glenn to tell us a little bit about the Village Initiative, and we’ll go from there.
Shawn Menard: The CCCA, generally we advocate on a lot of municipal issues — things like trees and green space in the community. We do a lot of developmental issues. Anything from parking, to resident issues in terms of streetscapes, any kind of closures that go on, so Bank Street closures — and actually Bronson’s supposed to close soon. We advocate on a lot of different things, liaise with the councillor quite a bit, we have some relations with the BIA, but not too, too much. Just generally any type of issue that would come up in the community that’s usually at a municipal level, but we do deal with some federal stuff too, things like the parole office was a big issue in the last little while.
Glenn Crawford: So just from a citizen’s perspective?
SM: Yes, that’s right.
GC: To create living spaces?
SM: Exactly. There’s a few different things that we definitely advocate on, such as preventing the gentrification of our community, obviously making living space more affordable is a big goal. So we align well with the goals of the CCOC — a great developer in Centretown. All those initiatives are important to us.
CX: So, a little bit about the Village Initiative?
GC: Sure. It’s an initiative that+s been going on for a couple of years, headed by me. I’m the chair of the committee — we now have a seven-person committee. Basically, we are attempting to put some colour on the streets, to make it a clear definition that this is the gay village that has sort of organically happened in the area, and to create a tourist destination, to create a safe-space for people to feel comfortable being themselves in, and a place where people know to access services and to generate growth from the business perspective as well. So there’s a number of reasons why the creation of a village is really important.
CX: So from here on, you guys can talk about the issues of the Village, and what your group can bring to it, what you can maybe bring to their group, things like that.
SM: Just so you know, I’m completely for the Initiative, absolutely, and I have been for a while. We haven’t taken it up at the CCCA, and it hasn’t been a formal motion that+s come up that I’ve seen, so one of the things that I can do is bring a motion forward at the Association, to make people more aware of what’s going on. I’ve read the arguments on both sides, and I know Gerry LePage [director of the Bank St BIA], and I’ve seen his argument about having a grassroots community and I’ve seen his argument about saying that this is something they could support in generalities but not something that they would support with money necessarily or lobby the city on. There’s contradictory statements coming out of it. Personally I’m completely for it and I know that a lot in our community would be completely for it as well. Is it a seven-block stretch?
CG: It+s a six-block stretch between Nepean and James, along the main corridor but also along the side streets. Essentially between Kent and roughly O’Connor, but if you consider Inn on Somerset, that goes towards Metcalfe. That’s where the businesses and organisations have congregated, and it’s sort of happened over time.
SM: It is a grassroots movement, is has been for some time, and so it’s so contradictory to say we need a grassroots movement — it has been for years. I think people generally know it as the gay village in Ottawa.
GC: I think the problem that we faced is a problem of visibility, and that’s what we’re talking about in terms of getting signage, flags, banners, whatever, because when you’re walking down the street because it isn’t clear what it is.
SM: Like a Chinatown would be.
GC: So we’re talking about street signs that would have a village icon on them. We’re looking at approaching businesses and saying that we will pay for flags and flagpoles if they put them up. I’m looking at maybe some labels, so a variety of initiatives — also public art, because I think that’s something that’s really exciting.
SM: Bank Street too has undergone huge economic downturn because of what’s gone on with the construction that’s been here, and people are looking for something lively on the street. I think that it’s a perfect initiative to do. I think that it would add to the economy of the street, I think it would be good for business. I think the tourism coming to the area would improve because of it, and I can’t understand why they wouldn’t want to do it. The only thing I can think of is if they think that business would be deterred away from coming to the area because of that — but obviously if that’s the reason, it’s ridiculous. What else would it be? What other reason could they have that they wouldn’t want to advance this forward?
GC: Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a clear answer on that. I haven’t had an opportunity to really speak with Gerry at this place in time, and his statement was that he was expecting some bottoms-up marketting. There was a sort of negative swell from the community from that press release that he issued. We tried to turn that around with our film screening street business—
SM: I saw that you had to move it to Gilmour.
GC: Right. So there was issues with that, and probably on both sides, so I’ll certainly take partial rap for that. So those conversations haven’t been happening unfortunately, and that’s a frustration because we want to know. We’re happy to meet those challenges, if we’re told what those challenges are.
SM: They won’t say. They won’t make those known. I don’t think that they would. Politically it would not… As far as what I can do and would like to do is bring a motion forward to the CCCA next meeting and make it an election issue. A municipal election is coming up in 2010; it should be an election issue. Hopefully, get some progress made before then, but the way things are going, it doesn’t look very promising.
It has to become an issue at that point. I think that’s what we can bring to it, and I’m fully willing to do that. If there’s something that you have in terms of a motion or anything like that that you guys have put together, I’ll definitely put that forward and I’ll support it. I know our community will most likely support everything as well.
GC: Certainly yeah. For the most part, that’s what we’ve been getting for responses. I can give you some information. Is there anything that you would need from me, like would you want me to attend the meeting?
SM: That would be great if you could. Just general information — well I have a lot of general information but if you have some things highlighted as to why this should happen, and I have some reasons of my own, but those things would be good. All that stuff would be beneficial. We usually get about 25-30 people out to a meeting every month, so definitely people would care about this issue, and it’s a big issue for our community.
GC: Okay, well I’ll see also, we have on our board a community spokesperson as well, so hopefully she’ll be able to attend as well.
SM: What’s her name?
GC: Her name is Bonnie McDougall. She’s been involved in a number of things, and she’s also a businessperson as well. Right now she works at Ottawa Living magazine. So in terms of some of the things that we’re looking at and moving forward, one of the things that we’re tying to do is fundraise.
SM: So it’s not something that the city should fully pay for? Is that the idea with the fundraising, or fundraising for messaging?
GC: The fundraising for the actual signage and so on.
SM: I think the city should pay for it. I mean the BIA has to approve it, but just like they do with Chinatown and Little Italy, those are paid for. I mean, maybe you’re fighting a losing battle there, but it should be paid for.
GC: Well I+ve had a lot of conversations with Diane Holmes, and she+s supportive in concept. For example I asked for how much the signs would cost for example. So I got a quote for that, and I said, “Okay, so we pay for these outright and we’re good to go?” and she said, “Well, you need the BIA approval as well.”
SM: They have control policy-wise.
GC: So there’s hurdles to come across, but I think what we’re looking at are continuing work with those structures, but also working with the individual businesses, so they see the bottoms-up, they see the business are behind it.
SM: I’ll tell you, the BIA board is made up of five people I believe, and so having people that are friendly to your initiative to run for that election — usually there’s not that many that would run on Bank Street — but getting them on the board, even if it’s just one person, that would help.
GC: We’ve had a meeting with Michel Parent, he’s the manager of the Scotia Bank. We had a very successful meeting with him, and he’s actually a sponsor of us now.
GC: We+ve worked that angle, yeah. We’re trying a number of different things. We’re looking at having a benefit in April, probably mid-April, date and location, all that to be determined, and we’ve done a number of smaller things, like Spelling Bees, the Pride presence and the screening, now we’re looking at a big, glitzy benefit and getting some serious cash. We have $4500 already.
SM: Oh, good!
GC: In the bank, and we raised that within less than a year — about eight months.
SM: Good for you guys, that’s awesome.
GC: I feel that there is momentum, and any support that we get from other existing organisations is wonderful.
SM: Our meeting is every third Tuesday of every month.
GC: We can certainly talk to the board as well about the statistics that villages certainly create safer spaces for people, not just for our community but for the community at large. I know that one of our committee members, Bruce Bursey, has done some research. There was the bar where the Rogers is now, that used to be a notorious biker hangout, pretty rough kind of crowd. It switched over to a gay bar, and when that happened, the entire area noticed a direct difference.
SM: [laughs] It’s a good argument.
GC: But because it was a gay bar, the bikers were a lot less likely to frequent it, and it created a safer space. These types of things are proven, and that’s something I’m sure that people would be interested in.
SM: Absolutely, they would be interested in that sort of stuff too, and there’s not a lot of business folks on our committee, but they would be interested in the economic benefit towards tourism and things like that, that would happen too and I’m sure it would. People don’t know when they come to Ottawa where the gay village is, where folks congregate, and I think would be definitely a good idea to talk about too.
GC: And it’s more than business too. It’s social services.
SM: It’s just funny because it’s the BIA that is really holding things up — and it is. I don’t see many other people from the community doing it, so when you can make that argument, that there’s an economic benefit to tourism and business in this area, it’s like, “What are you holding back on?”
GC: To me, looking at it, this is an area that has really been affected by construction, fire, building collapses — you name it. And an economic crisis and a bus strike. We’re essentially saying that here’s an identity on a silver platter. Because there really isn’t a defining identity to the street — it’s a lot of small little boutique stores, which are great and make a community, but it doesn’t have anything that’s necessarily unique or different than say, Elgin street. To me, it’s something that can create some traffic, because it’s about diversity, and that’s why the Village is a village for everyone.