Westboro at risk of losing Westfest

By Craig Lord – 

In a unanimous decision, the Westboro BIA Board of Directors voted to utilize its opt-out clause in its two-year contract agreement as the title sponsor of Westfest. The vote was held during the most recent BIA board meeting in early July, even as the positive feedback from the latest iteration of Westfest was still flowing in.

Elaina Martin, who has worked with the Westboro BIA to produce the event since its inception, says she was “very shocked” to hear the BIA wanted to end the relationship.

“This was one of the most successful Westfests ever. The Board of Directors of the BIA just decided they wanted to do something different with their marketing budget,” says Martin.

The board and Martin recently renegotiated a two-year contract for Westfest in Westboro, with an opt-out clause included for both parties after the first year. The renegotiated contract meant a reduced festival sponsorship, down from $150,000 to $125,000, but still represented 65 per cent of the BIA’s annual marketing budget. After year one, the Board of Directors decided that amount was still too steep to pay for an ever-growing festival.

Elaina Martin notes that nearly all of the money she receives from the BIA goes towards closing down the streets to have the party. Other sponsorships are required to pay for artists’ hotel rooms, stages, and other Westfest necessities.

“It’s not because there was a problem with the festival itself. It’s simply just we have other initiatives we need to pursue,” says Dan Hwang, chairman of the Westboro BIA Board of Directors.

Hwang says that putting 65 per cent of the budget into a two-day event was difficult to justify. The board would like to branch out into other initiatives: year-round programming for the new Winston Square installation and continued streetscape beautification efforts, for example. In other words, more long-term projects rather than one big short-term boost.

“We still want to do a summer festival in order to highlight all of the things that are great about Westboro, and to try to achieve the most benefit for our members. We’re just trying to make the financially responsible decision,” says Hwang.

Business improvement areas in the city are funded entirely by local merchants who pay a levy to the city for registration and accordingly receive that levy back in the form of an annual budget. The city acts as the accountant, but all funds come from the members. The mandate of a BIA, then, is to use that money to market and promote businesses in the area, and divide their budget to what the board feels will provide the greatest return on investment.

Martin says that she isn’t soured on relations with the BIA — realizing it was strictly a financial decision — and is still open to renegotiating. She says she feels bad for the business owners who didn’t have a say in the process.

Westfest founder Elaina Martin, pictured at the media launch of Westfest 2014.
Westfest founder Elaina Martin, pictured at the media launch of Westfest 2014. File photo by Andrea Tomkins.

“It’s a pretty big deal to a lot of people on the street there,” Martin says.

Many businesses in the Westboro BIA are upset with terminating sponsorship. An email was sent from the BIA board to its members on July 10 outlining the decision and justifications, but a number of businesses didn’t receive the email and heard about the outcome much later in the summer when Martin sent a farewell message of her own.

Sheba Schmidt, owner of West End Kids, says she was dismayed when she finally heard what had happened.

“They made a decision on an event that is huge revenue for us,” she says. “I was so hot with frustration.”

Sheba Schmidt, owner of West End Kids. Photo by Craig Lord.
Sheba Schmidt, owner of West End Kids in Westboro. Photo by Craig Lord.

Along with Don Cogan, owner of Whispers restaurant, she began contacting other businesses to rally their support behind Westfest. Many owners responded to throw their support behind the campaign.

“I was not happy,” says Valerie Ventola, owner of The Cuckoo’s Nest. “Westfest was a really good income generator for us, and we also get a lot of visibility from all over Ottawa. So we end up getting additional sales for weeks afterwards.”

Tracy Smith, the owner of Brio (and whose husband, Gilbert Russell, is on the Board of Directors), says she enjoys Westfest but sees the benefit of more regular programming.

“It would be nice to have some of that… maybe spread over the year, to have more impact,” she says.

The Village Quire owner Molly van der Schee agrees, but wants to see proof that other events can be done successfully before getting rid of a sure-thing in Westfest.

“Westfest puts Westboro on the map,” says van der Schee.

Not all hope is lost, however. Councillor Jeff Leiper recently facilitated a meeting between Cogan, Schmidt and representatives of the board. Leiper does sit on the board, but says his role is representative of the voters of Kitchissippi, and as such abstained from putting his vote into an affair solely between the BIA board and its members.

“I’m urging the BIA board to take that reconsideration very seriously, but I’m not advocating that they do or not. I’m just making sure they’re listening,” Leiper says. He notes, though, that Westfest has been a substantial community-building initiative for years.

After Cogan and Schmidt voiced the concerns they’d gathered from residents, the board agreed to reconsider its decision and gather more direct feedback from BIA members in a forum soon to be determined.

“They listened to us loud and clear,” Schmidt says. “Westboro members have a fighting chance.”

The original plan saw the BIA seek proposals for a new, smaller budget festival. Westfest Inc. was welcome to apply to the request, but Martin says she was not open to that option. This plan remains in place until the board chooses an alternate approach, or reinstates Westfest’s sponsorship.

Martin says that while she has been actively seeking a new venue for Westfest, she’s encouraged by the support and would like to see a speedy resolution to keep the festival in its original home.

“I’m not going to be the one that lets them down, that’s for sure,” she says.

18 thoughts

  1. As I read about the recent events surrounding Westfest and it this I have to wonder if these BIA members are a select group… they clearly don’t speak for everyone. Was this decision made at a town hall of businesses or do a few voices drown out the many? The single only reason I know where Westboro is (after residing in Ottawa for 23 years) is because of Westfest. Year after year, people are either introduced, or reintroduced to Westboro…its restaurants, businesses and services because of this well-known and professionally organized event. Sorry to say, a side walk sale 4 times a year, and a few Christmas balls will not have me making my way in my car to an area (with little – to no reasonable parking) when I can one stop shop in a mall with unlimited free parking!

    I do know that as a family, we appreciated that once a year this business community and its partners not only continued to reinvest in itself but rewarded my year round patronage with a free festival venue of such quality and stature…the investment into Local & Canadian Arts and Music most certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed either. The question that must now be asked is will be…of all the Shopping Districts I can shop at in Ottawa, would Westboro continue to dominate my future preference without this event, and the answer would be “no.” I’m a local consumer (every chance I get) but I invest where people invest in me, and it looks like the BIA has unilaterally decided to stop investing in its consumer’s in a surprisingly and insulting way.

    Of course I respect the autonomy of business owners looking for additional ways to increase business but I think that without Westfest, Westboro will return the din of just revert to just shanty street with hit and miss business’s. One can never deny that Westfest has kept, and keeps you on the map as relevant. I think this is very shortsighted, and I think it is be bad for property owners as Westboro reverts back to din of the unknown. I knew our purchases directly contributed to a culturally diverse festival that is so set apart from status quo, I appreciated and supported that. I have to say that I will likely reconsidering my shopping options if the Westboro BIA and its businesses do not reconsider.

    One cannot forget a serious acknowledgement to Westfest organizers Elaina Martin, her staff, and the host of local volunteers who have worked so hard to bring the Westboro to the forefront in name, status and value. Elaina’s Martin’s efforts (without question) has made, and continues to make Westboro what it is today…I think the BIA has lost touch and is way out in left field with regards to its consumer base. I have no doubt that this reckless and limited decision will not only hurt business in the long run but will now discourage people from setting up shop in Westboro. I certainly would not be opening a business there now …and if I did, I would be looking for a new home that acknowledges my needs. I urge the Westboro business owners (and residents alike) to take another look at this decision, I fear you may not know what you have until it’s gone…

    Patrick Garbutt

  2. Hi everyone, as an artist who has played Westfest twice, I would also like to remind the B.I.A. the impact this festival has culturally. It’s all well & good to talk about return on investment, but the cultural impact this festival has on the lives of local artists & citizens alike is immeasurable & cannot have a dollar value attached to it. Westfest brings people together & lasting relationships of all kinds are formed (Business & personal alike) & these relationships are the very fabric that make up our communities.

    Westfest is essential to the overall communal health of Westboro & is something that all of Ottawa should be very proud of. There are not many festivals that I know of that can boast promoting 100% Canadian content, so from that perspective, this even becomes a national issue. THAT’s how important Westfest is to all of us.

    I have started a petition on Avaaz to try to help the B.I.A. understand the importance of Westfest, if you all could be so kind as to sign it, share it & get involved with spreading the word, I will see that it gets into the right hands to present it to the B.I.A. & hopefully they will have a change of heart.

    Westfest is something that we should ALL be incredibly proud of. It’s everything beautiful & wonderful about being Canadian & we need to keep it going not only for our own community, but also to serve as an example to the entire world what kind of amazing things we can accomplish when we come together & work with one another. Please don’t let this happen. Get involved & change your world for the better!!!

    Here’s a link to the petition:


  3. I also, REALLY hope the Westboro BIA reconsiders this decision. As an enthusiastic long term (10/12 years) volunteer, I have been privy to witness firsthand, year after year, the absolutely amazing impact that this festival has had on the Westboro community, businesses, and residents! Not to mention on the many thousands of attendees!!

    Why have I been coming back year after year, when Ottawa hosts a plethora of festivals? It’s quite simple, actually. From its main stage near the gas station right up to 14 city blocks, Westfest grew because it was free to everyone, highly accessible, promoted incredible new/mid-career/up and coming Canadian artists, and embraced diversity, children and ALL families. The heart of Westfest beats ever-so-powerfully within Elaina Martin, and one can’t help but become totally engulfed in and engaged by her enthusiasm and dedication to maintaining the true spirit of Westfest. I for one was immediately drawn in to the lively street atmosphere (so much to do for every one of all ages!), the festive spirit of Westfest, along with its thoughtful and genuine leadership, and the undisputable camaraderie of its volunteer team and staff! Westfest encourages a diverse and inclusive talent, audience, volunteer base and staff. Under Elaina’s leadership, everyone is welcome and treated equally and respectfully.

    Westfest stands out because it fosters a strong sense of community by merely providing an arts festival that is FREE and ACCESSIBLE to everyone. Westfest fosters collaboration between artists through numerous artistic disciplines: music, poetry, fiction, visual art, spoken word, contemporary dance, Aboriginal art form, etc. Westfest has always also fostered project collaboration and liaised between the artists, arts organizations, businesses, various communities, and other festivals.

    As a long term volunteer, I have always been very proud to promote the Westfest festival because it is free and open to all, despite its size and broad scope! Kudos to the Westboro BIA for having supported this festival for all of these years!!! It has always been a win-win-win for Westboro businesses, the festival, and the community at large! I will always wholeheartedly support Westfest, despite this recent decision.

    The businesses and community will face a tremendous loss if Westfest has to go. This festival is the best advertising you can get for your money and for Westboro! The festival buzz starts months in advance of the festival, draws in thousands of Ottawa area residents and hundreds of tourists to Westboro shops & businesses, and the buzz continues for weeks post Westfest. That alone, is an excellent return on your investment!!!

    BIA: I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision, and to survey your local businesses for their thoughts on this decision.

  4. I wish to add my voice to the deep disappointment in Westboro Village BIA’s decision to withdraw funding from WestFest. My business and many other businesses in Westboro benefited greatly from WestFest. I am concerned that the BIA made this decision without having a clear plan on how to generate the same economic impact on Wesboro as WestFest. The first step in making sound business decisions is doing a thorough cost-benefit analysis of options, and then make a decision based on that analysis – the BIA has failed in this regard.

    The BIA is suggesting to replace WestFest with streetscape beautification and Christmas decorations – it’s all very nice but how will this generate the same economic impact as WestFest? People all over the city and beyond will not drive to Westboro to see flowers and Christmas decoration, but they will and they have for WestFest.

    A decision of this magnitude should have be done in consultation with all parties involved, businesses and community. BIA Westboro has failed in their role to represent Westboro businesses, and have demonstrated a lack of long term vision and business acumen.

  5. I won’t repeat anything in the comments already made. The message is LOUD and VERY clear. Before the Board of the Westboro BIA does anything, they MUST listen to the community. The people that live IN the community. The business owners. Visitors that come from miles away to visit the community. And not just during Westfest, but year round. That’s a lot of voices to be heard. So for the board to act in such haste was quite an irresponsible decision. However many members that make up the board, for them to sit at a table and decide the fate for so many involved is unjustifiable.

    Become true community leaders, listen to what people have to say, and then make amends to this quite damaging decision that has been made that could potentially rip a large part of the soul out of Westboro that is Westfest.

  6. I understand wanting your investment to go a long way, we all do, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who wonders, how does the BIA intend on spending the money that they used to invest in WESTFEST, and get the same return for the businesses in the area, not only in foot traffic, but also spending?

    It seems like well worth investment hearing the comments from the shop owners, and community and attendees. I have seen this festival grow from the small stage in the parking lot by the gas station, to a festival that attracts thousands, and put the neighbourhood on the map. Not a lot of communities in Canada can say, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sarah Harmer, Joel Plaskett,Skydiggers, Bif Naked (I could go on and on and on about the amazing Canadian artists) played on my street and I didn’t have to pay a cent to see them. Communities would love to get this kind of talent and exposure not only in Canada but all over the country. I sure hope they re-think this, it would suck not getting to rock out to amazing music next summer.

  7. How does the Westboro Village BIA Board of Directors think they can better utilize their marketing budget? It said that they reduced the sponsorship to $125,000 which I think is a small investment when WESTFEST draws thousands of people to the community which is FREE advertising for the businesses through word of mouth and year ‘round!
    What are the other initiatives that they want to pursue? Does not sound like they have a plan for the future… sounds more like political clap chap.
    How is investing in WESTFEST not a justifiable financially responsible decision? This two-day event is far more reaching than the weekend it occurs for the businesses that attract new customers and economic growth that remains throughout the year.
    If the BIA is mandated to market and promote local businesses, then why have the businesses not been allowed to weigh in on the decision? Simple… by using their ‘power’ to force the community to do what they want, sounds to me like they are nothing but a bunch of bullies!
    I am not from Ottawa or even Ontario for that matter, but attend this wonderful FREE festival every year. I talk about it throughout the year. I encourage people that I know are going to be in Ottawa to visit boutiques and restaurants in that area. As a visitor to your city, I would have never known about your neighbourhood had it not been for WESTFEST. And as a loyal WESTFEST attendee, I will go where the festival goes, and so will the cash that i spend when I am there.
    Come on Westboro Village BIA Board of Directors – fulfill your 2 year commitment!
    Listen to the businesses, listen to the community!

  8. Westboro BIA as lost their Minds Stealing from businesses at Westboro . A hundred thousand people pass through that weekend at westfest and not sponsoring westfest is like taking money from all the businesses at Westboro without their consent.
    Westfest brings people from all over Ottawa and surrounding areas, tourist wait for this event to happen to plan their trips, I have been going to westfest for over 5 years and I have met people from all over , Toronto, Montreal ,Timmons , Prince Edward Island, Moncton N.B, tourist from Japan ,Australia ,England , westfest is one of the biggest free event in Ottawa, and it’s because of WestFest that my wife and I started shopping in Westboro stores,
    Store owners ,managers and workers alike are very Pleasant and inviting to every store we walked into.
    If Westboro BIA cancels sponsorship, this would comes as a big disappointment to our family and friends, friends we wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for WestFest.

  9. I can not agree more with all the above points made.
    As a regular attendee of Westfest I am stunned by this decision and saddened by the lack of oversight this BIA is demonstrating. NOTHING will draw the same volume of returning and new clients to your local businesses than this free and all inclusive event. No amount of advertising (currently provided by Westfest) can draw that many people to your neighborhood and provide them with such a happy and memorable experience that they will want to return to your neighborhood on a regular basis to shop. No amount of street gentrification and other small regular activities will draw in the out of town people (and people from other areas in Ottawa) that annually make the trip in for Westfest.
    As someone who does not reside in Westboro, and who annually makes the trip across town to attend Westfest I will tell you that this event is the sole reason that I started and continue to frequent the shops and restaurants in your neighbourhood.

    I feel for the business owners that were not involved in this decision (shouldn’t the BIA consult all business owners?) because I for one will not be drawn back to the neighborhood should Westfest be forced to relocate as a result of this decision. I do hope that the business owners petition the BIA for a new and “unanimous” vote that includes all people impacted by this decision, and i do hope the BIA is smart enough to actually look at what a massive benefit Westfest is to their economy.

    Having said that, if Westfest is forced to relocate i will happily take my business to the new location….as i am sure many many more Westfest attendees will also do.

  10. My husband and I owned a business in Westboro from 1990 until 2007. At the beginning Westboro was a ghost town. Failing businesses, tired buildings, lack of identity. It was difficult to get businesses to open in Westboro. We had little to offer. The BIA tried….we held a parade that was “well attended” but didn’t really make a blip in sales figures for the event. We introduced other initiatives that really did not give a significant return on investment for the business owners.

    Along came Westfest. Visionaries such as Peter Germotte and Bernie Stewart saw the potential. The goal was to put Westboro on the map. To make it a shopping destination. To give other businesses a reason to open in our area. Westfest has done that. The BIA’s support has allowed the festival to remain free and accessible to all. Brilliant use of resources. One only has to walk through the streets of Westboro during Westfest to feel the impact of this festival.

    The loss of the festival to our beloved Westboro would be such a shame. A travesty. To their credit, Elaina and her Westfest team have not only made Westboro a household name, but have made Westfest a household name. A name she can take anywhere and be successful. Thanks Westboro BIA for contributing to that success.

    If I still owned a business in Westboro I would not be happy with the members of the BIA board. This is tried and true. Other areas can only dream of this kind of success. Sheba said this is a decision made without consulting their members. If Westfest commits more than 50% of their budget I would expect a referendum to be conducted before cutting it out.

  11. As a former business manager and ex-BIA board member I am very disappointed in the BIA’s decision to pull support from Westfest. During my eight years managing a business on a Richmond Road, the festival weekend was always the highlight of the year and exposed countless new people to the store, which meant sustained increased business through the rest of the year.

    As a resident, the joyful community spirit of a weekend-long street party would be sorely missed.

    I’m happy to read that the BIA is willing to meet with business owners who are voicing their concern about the decision, and sincerely hope that Westfest can return to Westboro for years to come, so that the local community and its businesses can enjoy the countless benefits it provides.

  12. I REALLY hope the BIA of Westboro reconsiders this decision. As a performer who played WESTFEST in 2009 and 2013 I cannot say enough good things about what Elaina Martin and her group have created. It’s a huge asset for the local economy AND the local arts community.

    The buzz around town starts months before the actual weekend and draws over 100,000 people to the area. And those people come back over the course of the year because of what they experience at WESTFEST.

    I would not be so quick to dismiss just how important this festival is in building a brand for the Village that goes well beyond a single weekend in June! I’m guessing MANY communities would be happy to invest $125K to get the return that WESTFEST generates for Westboro!!

  13. Shortsighted nonsense. If they think they can do a few times a year what you and your team manage to create once a year–and get the buzz, excitement, press, and inclusive engagement–they’re truly delusional.

    I am not quite sure I understand what’s going on here. How can anyone with any sense not figure out that an event that brings in over 80,000 people through your village in two days IS a venue for long term benefits within the Westboro business community?
    If you don’t think that the Baker Street Café will miss the return customers who discovered the best breakfast in the city during their visit to WESTFEST, maybe you should ask the business owner.
    If you don’t think that Whispers Pub and Eatery will miss having their place filled to the rafters, spilling out into their special event patio and folks coming back later in the year with their softball and hockey teams, maybe you should ask the business owner.
    If you don’t think that the unique, specialty boutiques that pepper the Westboro main drag will miss hearing, “wow! I never would have known you were here had I not been out on the street today (for WESTFEST), I can’t wait to tell my friends!”, maybe you should ask the business owners!
    I get that the Westboro BIA thinks they are making a sound financial decision, but they are wrong. If they do initiate a forum, a true, inclusive platform where ALL the businesses are informed of the Where, When and how of it with proper notice and accessibility, I believe they will find that their decision may be rash.
    It to the Westboro BIA:
    WESTFEST is the best thing to ever happen to Westboro, next to Dovercourt. I’m certainly not the only one who believes that opting out of it is the single most ridiculous thing that anyone who apparently has the village’s best interests at heart could do.
    WESTFEST is a perfectly executed, exciting and inclusive community event that brings in more business than you could ever dream of generating with whatever you think might be able to pull off on your own. Streetscape beautification and year round programming in Winston Square is all well and good but you need to draw people in to see it. You want people to come to Westboro from all over.
    WESTFEST puts Westboro on the map, period.
    Breaking the partnership with the festival and Elaina Martin is like sending one of your best allies, and in terms you may better understand, ASSETS, on their merry way to help someone else make money.
    Good LUCK picking up the pieces if you stick to this decision. Westboro will NEVER recoup what will be lost if WESTFEST leaves the village.

    WESTFEST has been around longer than many of you and so have the businesses. Listen to them.

  15. I had the privilege of being a past Board Member of the Westboro BIA, and at the beginning of the now successful Westfest.

    The mandate of the BIA is to improve the area for the businesses located in its boarders. The money spent on the Westfest festival was by fare cheaper then numerous other ways of advertising, sponsorships and initiatives. A survey was requisitioned to Barry Nabatian a retail analyst here in Ottawa. The result was a staggering 5 plus million dollars spent in the Westboro area on the 3rd year of Westfest.

    Return on investment speaks for itself. The short sightedness of the current board is pitiful. A proven success that continues till today and they want to change it with no clear plan on how on what they want to do that… Put it out to tender, that’s s joke.

    Westfest is bigger then Christmas for the retailers of Westboro, and provides more exposure. An average of 100,000 to 150,000 people attend every year.

    The current board of the BIA of Westboro is not acting in a responsible and accountable fashion to their membership.

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