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Retro Rides and Escape Tours is counting on good things for Sparks Street

The Sparks Street Mall was originally intended to be a busy pedestrian mall. Things haven't turned out that way.

The original plan for closing Sparks Street to vehicular traffic in 1967 was to give locals and tourists alike a beautiful pedestrian mall to visit, walk, shop and live on.

However, it hasn't quite turned out that way, according to Jason Komendat of Retro Rides and Maria Rasouli of Escape Tourism and Rentals. As partners, the pair co-own the Ottawa Bike Cafe.

They should know.

Komendat and Rasouli regard their funky bike shop and cafe at 79 Sparks street as their second home. It's a beautiful basically to all things bicycles. Vintage bicycles hang on the walls like stained glass. There are as many baristas as there are bike mechanics. The vibe is fresh and friendly with a unique experience.

But on the street, instead of the return to pre-COVID-19 form they were hoping for, the pair see an empty avenue largely abandoned by government workers, local shoppers and tourists who used to make Sparks Street, one of Ottawa's busiest commercial strips.

Few commercial regions in Ottawa were hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent pandemic lockdowns and protocols than the world famous Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall. It's an oft-told tale. March 2020 and overnight, the city shut down, and approximately 200,000 civil servants and thousands of tourists, the life blood of the street's commerce, stopped visiting the city.

Seemingly overnight, an estimated 36,000 – 38,000 people who commuted to work on bicycles downtown everyday and who visited Retro Rides for service and parts disappeared. The 3,000-5,000 people Escape Rentals served annually stopped coming.

For the Sparks Street Business Improvement Area (BIA) already struggling to generate business pre-pandemic, the lockdowns were devastating. Sparks Street became a ghost town.

“It was like our neighbourhood burned down, all these people disappeared,” Komendat says. “It was challenging to lose our clientele overnight like that. We're still here. I'm not exactly sure why sometimes, but we're filled with hope.”

To adjust to the new pandemic marketplace, Komendat and Rasouli pivoted the business gently, opening the Ottawa Bike Cafe where they serve coffee, craft beer, light meals and live music, in 2021.The pair are determined to make the business work as well as it did before the pandemic.

“If we get through COVID, Sparks Street could be an amazing destination, this street will become what it was meant to be,” says Komendat. “We need a flow of traffic. So if they close Wellington Street behind us to cars, Sparks Street is going to become even more of a dead zone.”

What the pandemic did was exasperate the marketing issues Sparks Street Mall had been struggling with for 50 years. Attracting foot traffic. Once the government offices closed for business, so too did the mall's customers.

There are, on occasion, signs of life for the old girl such as when the BIA presents Poutinefest or Ribfest. Then, the street is packed with gawkers and pedestrians. But when those events are over, the people disappear because there are so many vacancies on the street.

Frustrated, Komendat and Rasouli are hoping the three government departments who manage the mall; Public Works, Government Services Canada and the National Capital Commission (NCC), will have a more permanent solution to restore the avenue to good health post-pandemic. They recently commissioned plans to rebuild Sparks Street into a greener, more pedestrian-friendly mall.

A contractor by trade, Komendat launched his bike business in 2012 out of his home, selling handmade bikes manufactured before 1990.

“Biking is my addiction,” he says. “It's freedom, health of mind and freedom. It sharpens the body and mind and the older handmade bikes are works of art.”

By 2017, his business was going so well, he quit his day job as an independent contractor and opened the original Retro Rides on Sparks.

Originally from Iran, Rasouli came to Ottawa to do a PhD in organizational psychology and teach at Carleton University. She found Ottawa such a beautiful location, and started renting bikes and organizing tours of historic sites in 2015, launching Escape Tours and Rentals on Sparks in 2016.

Bike path tours of old Ottawa and Hull where they see national sites and hidden historic gems.

“Jason and I share the concept of the cycling lifestyle on Sparks Street,” she says. “The region is a beautiful place and people think they know a lot about the city. Then, they take a tour with us and they're humbled because they learned so much in a two-hour tour.”

“We have a lot of faith in the street,” Komendat adds. “We love the fact that there are no cars on the street. It's great for a bike shop. But we haven't seen the foot traffic we had before COVID-19. Our business is bleeding money because there are too many vacancies on Sparks. It needs vibrant businesses to bring the people back.”

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