The Sparks Street bike shop convoy, COVID, and the end of the bureaucratic spell

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Two-and-a-half years of COVID, the effects of lingering trucker convoys, and unyielding bureaucracy at every level of government have taken the wheels off Jason Comendat’s dream of a Sparks Street bike shop and cafe.

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With nearly $130,000 in rent and property taxes and his business still largely dependent on working from home, he said his Retro-Rides shop will have to close completely at the end of October. Since 2017, he has had business on Sparks Street, albeit in a more modest space on the same block, but said his business died out due to the pandemic.

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“There are 38,000 police within a five-minute walk of Sparks Street and they have all gone home,” Commendat said. “It’s like your neighborhood just caught fire. All the other area bike shops are doing great. All my customers have gone home.”

Komendat, 55, has been planning Retro-Rides for more than a decade since sitting at the kitchen table with her two young daughters brainstorming the family business of running a bike shop and coffee bar. A cyclist with a passion for vintage two-wheelers, Kommendat started the business in his home in 2012 and moved to his 65 Sparks in 2012.

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“For downtown commuters, the word spread like wildfire,” said Comendat. “We focused on service. People came up and said, ‘Can you fix my bike?’ I would say yes. They’ll say, “Can you fix it today?” And we said, “Yes. What time do you need it? We worked really hard.”

He submitted a business plan to Public Works and Procurement Canada and moved to a larger space with space for a cafe at 79 Sparks. He put more than $100,000 into the space, not including his 1,200 hours in construction.

Then came COVID. The bike shop was seen as an essential service, so Kommendat opened up the service side of the shop, but kept the cafe closed.

“Staff kept coming in, and we didn’t know if we were risking our lives or even contracting a deadly disease. It was seen as a service.There are a lot of people who rely on us.I couldn’t conscientiously close the business.”

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He and his daughters postponed opening the cafe until May 2021, but the PSPC said it couldn’t wait any longer and had to open.

“They said you signed the lease in 2019. We can’t delay it any longer,” Comendat said. “But what do you know? The city is on lockdown. The only reason it didn’t open was because it wasn’t economically viable.”

In that first pandemic summer, business was modest. They tried to bring live music to their outdoor patio. nothing helped.

“My daughters brought the cafe to life. They designed the recipe. Everything is made from scratch. Neither was there.

The cafe closed last December, but has longed for its winter comeback.

“Winterlude was scheduled for February, but then Omicron hit. Winterlude is canceled. It was the last nail in the coffin.”

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Since the occupation, the city has made downtown a no-go zone three times due to various protests. A motorbike convoy, a Dutch farmer’s rally, and a Canadian His Day celebration relocated to the Lebreton Flats.

“I was on the patio here for 11 hours on Canada Day, selling cheap beer to the rebels,” he said. “I was desperate. I had to smile and wave to them.”

Downtown has never really recovered, he said, but it was uncompromising bureaucracy. It took 16 months to submit. It was too late for Kommendat to apply for the expired tax relief program. Commendat shares space with a bike tour company, so his business owes half of his $34,000 in taxes.

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Also, Retro-Rides were not eligible for federal wage subsidies. The store was in the red, but business never slowed down enough to meet the 50% threshold.

The city of Ottawa has offered relief for the three weeks of business lost during the occupation, but Kommendat said it wasn’t enough.

“In fact, three weeks is meaningless,” he said. “We are still feeling the effects of the fleet.”

He received a $60,000 federal loan, of which $20,000 will be forgiven if he can repay it by the end of 2023. And finally, the PSPC says he owes him $35,000 in unpaid rent, and if not paid by the end of October, the government will turn it over to collection agencies.

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Commendat met with Somerset Municipal Council Member Katherine McKechnie, city officials, local MPP Joel Harden, Ottawa Center MP Yasur Naqvi and PSPC staff. Everyone was sympathetic, but no one offered a concrete solution.

He’s frustrated given the $2.9 million tax break the city gave the luxury car dealership when it opened on Montreal Road.

“I am not asking for forgiveness,” he said. “I’m asking for his 10-year payment plan for my portion of property taxes and unpaid rent,” he said.

“Look around,” he said, pointing to a poster-covered window on Sparks Street. “Look at all the empty storefronts. Every one of them is someone’s dream destroyed.

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The Sparks Street bike shop convoy, COVID, and the end of the bureaucratic spell

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