Ottawa’s finance and economic development committee (FEDCO) on Tuesday unanimously passed a bid from Tanger-owner RioCan to allow the outlet mall on the western edge of the city to open during holidays throughout the year when most retailers in the city are mandated to close.
Areas of the city such as the ByWard Market and, as of 2016, the Glebe, have exemptions to this rule based on their status as tourist destinations.
RioCan applied for the designation earlier in the year based in part on the spin-off traffic it receives from the nearby Canadian Tire Centre (CTC) when hockey games and marquee speakers such as Michelle Obama come to town, attracting thousands of regional tourists.
But as Sean McKenny, president of the Ottawa & District Labour Council, noted at FEDCO on Tuesday, many of the figures underpinning RioCan’s application were based on 2019 stats — before the novel coronavirus pandemic shutdown major events at venues such as the CTC.
McKenny, who also fought and appealed the Glebe holiday decision four years ago, argued RioCan should wait and reapply after the pandemic has passed to determine whether spin-off tourism remains a factor.
Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, chair of Ottawa Public Health, also questioned the decision to encourage more out-of-town travelers to congregate in indoor spaces amid the pandemic.
“Does this make good sense when we’re dealing with the biggest health crisis we’ve ever had?” he asked.
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But most councillors were of the opinion that extra opening hours were exactly what the Tanger Outlets needed to offset the impacts of the pandemic.
Kanata North Coun. Jenna Sudds, whose ward includes the shopping centre, said council must “grab opportunities” to help businesses that rely on tourism to bounce back from the pandemic.
McKenny said however that front-line workers are most often vulnerable and precariously employed and should not bear the brunt of retailers’ efforts to recoup coronavirus-related losses by working extra hours.
He noted that the Ontario government did not move forward with a plan earlier this year to cut statutory holidays for retail workers, much to the satisfaction of labour union Unifor.
Mayor Jim Watson said in his closing comments that workers would have the chance to decline work on holidays and stores would still have the power to remain closed even if the outlet mall were allowed to open generally.
He added that allowing the Tanger Outlets to open on holidays would strike a balance between the economic and health concerns at play during the pandemic.
“Everything that we’ve been doing since COVID has been focused first and foremost on health and public safety, but a close second is economic renewal and revitalization,” he said.
The application still requires sign-off from city council at its next meeting on Sept. 9, which means the outlet mall will not be able to open on the upcoming Labour Day Monday.