Lifetime Achievement Award: Durrell’s dynasty

Published in the Ottawa Business Journal newspaper and website.
Nov. 14, 2011 (Nov. 18 on

Former Ottawa mayor’s lasting legacy in sporting, tourism, business and beyond

Jim Durrell.
Jim Durrell, OBJ and Ottawa Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement
Award recipient.

Photo by MARK HOLLERON for the
Ottawa Business Journal.

Name most of Ottawa’s major landmarks, and it’s likely you’ll hear one name repeated throughout their histories – Jim Durrell.

In fact, many of the framed images lining the staircase leading up to Mr. Durrell’s offices at the Capital Dodge auto dealership are a testament to this fact, from the photo of an airplane taking off, to the various United Way certificates, to the picture of the Ottawa Convention Centre being built.

The former mayor had a hand in the construction of the capital’s airport and new convention centre, and his influence has loomed large over the city’s sporting infrastructure. As well, he’s played roles with the Ottawa Hospital and various other charitable organizations.

It’s all part of Mr. Durrell’s philosophy of building up the city’s “cornerstones”: health care, recreation and sport, culture, and education, with a healthy economy at the centre.

“(Those) essential things keep everything moving,” he says.

In celebration of Mr. Durrell’s Lifetime Achievement Award, as part of the Ottawa Business Achievement Awards being presented Dec. 1, OBJ took a look back at his manifold achievements in the National Capital Region.

Mr. Mayor

It all began, Mr. Durrell says, over a meal with another former Ottawa mayor, Don Reid.

Mr. Durrell, a Montreal native, had returned to the nation’s capital in 1976 after enjoying a brief stint here several years earlier as part of his job with the London Life Insurance Co. His wife Sam worked for Mr. Reid, and over dinner the topic of the city’s reorganization came up.

“I was unhappy with the direction council was taking; (I thought) it was anti-business. So I ran (as alderman) in 1980 … I was re-elected in ‘82 and then was determined that if I was going to do this, the only place to be was at the top,” recalls Mr. Durrell. “I was fortunate enough to be elected mayor, and it’s the place to effect enormous change.”

Bruce Hillary, president of Hillary’s Cleaners and close friend of Mr. Durrell’s, also served as his mayoral campaign manager. Mr. Hillary says Mr. Durrell was able to get things done because of his confidence and persuasiveness, enabling him to unite councillors that often had very different viewpoints.

“He has a tremendous ability as a salesperson, with a knack for drawing people to him,” says Mr. Hillary. “His skills are meeting people and convincing them his ideas are important and make sense.”

Sports centre

From football to baseball to hockey, there’s no doubt that Mr. Durrell has been a key player in Ottawa’s sports scene.

A varsity football player in university, he parlayed his love of that sport into bringing the 1988 Grey Cup to Ottawa, and in 1996 he served as president for the Ottawa Rough Riders Football Club. In 1993, the Ottawa Lynx Triple-A baseball team began playing in JetForm Park, newly converted from a snow dump following a land swap arranged by Mr. Durrell with the National Capital Commission.

“As mayor of the city, you see all the potential … and the weaknesses of the city. Being a former mayor, you’re privileged to have the opportunity to still be able to actively build the city and assist, and that’s how I got involved.”

But he says his biggest contribution to the city was as lead presenter for a meeting with the National Hockey League in 1990, which eventually led to the creation of the modern-day Ottawa Senators and subsequently, the arena now known as Scotiabank Place.

“I think the Sens took Ottawa from the minor leagues to the major leagues as a city,” says Mr. Durrell. “You don’t have to be a hockey fan to recognize the incredible economic and fun impact it’s had on this community.”

That stance had a huge effect on the success of the delegation, notes Ottawa Senators founder Bruce Firestone.

“Jim always thought of Ottawa as more than just a government town … that we could stand up to the big leagues with the Torontos or Montreals. He never felt we were too small or parochial,” Mr. Firestone says. “He was funny, charismatic, convincing, and as mayor of Ottawa he carried a lot of weight.”

From ‘third world’ to first class

Mr. Durrell doesn’t mince words when looking back at the old airport. “Our airport was basically like a third world country’s; it was deplorable, unacceptable, run by the federal government – there was just nothing nice about it,” he says.

Then, in 1999 he was named to the board of the Ottawa Airport Authority, ascending to the role of chair in 2005. In this capacity, Mr. Durrell spearheaded the $310-million construction of the new terminal in 2003 and later, a new $95-million wing and the demolition of the old airport in 2008.

The projects were completed on time and did not receive any government funding, being completely funded by an improvement fee levied by the airport.

“Under the leadership of our board, a group of dedicated people and (airport authority) president Paul Benoit, we were able to give Ottawa a truly beautiful, world-class airport, very befitting of a G8 capital,” says Mr. Durrell, adding that he believes the facility is one of the key economic generators for the city. “It’s not overbuilt, it’s profitable, it’s architecturally attractive and highly functional and efficient. It’s a delight.”

Nothing ‘Convention’-al

Formal discussions around the expansion of the city’s premier convention facility began in the 1990s, but the project was stalled for years amid a dispute with Viking Rideau Corp., owner of the connecting Rideau Centre shopping centre, concerning funding and zoning issues.

However, the wheels began turning more quickly following the provincial government’s 2006 appointment of Mr. Durrell to lead the redevelopment plans. Vowing to begin construction within three years, he shook up the centre’s management in May 2007, replacing the expansion project head Joan Culliton with engineer Graham Bird and development consultant Dale Craig.

By September 2007, Mr. Durrell’s team had come up with a new $159-million plan that would see the old Congress Centre demolished in 2008, with construction officially beginning in 2009, and in April 2011 the sparkling new Ottawa Convention Centre opened its doors.

The on-time, on-budget project is yet another example of Mr. Durrell’s chops as a community builder, says close friend Bruce Hillary. “Where others tried (and failed) to come to terms, Jim was able to sit down and hammer it out.”

Giving back

Success in life, says Mr. Durrell, includes the ability to give back if you’ve been blessed to receive and to enjoy what you’ve done. It’s a philosophy that’s motivated Mr. Durrell’s many charitable endeavours, including his role with the Ottawa Hospital’s President’s Breakfast fundraising campaign and his membership in the United Way’s campaign cabinet, among others.

He notes he believes the city’s welfare ought to be in concert with its economy. “I have a very large social conscience, but I also believe that you never help the weak or downtrodden by weakening the strong. A good, healthy economy creates all sorts of jobs and the financial wherewithal where you can afford to have good affordable housing and social programs.”


1970-72: First comes to Ottawa as local manager, employee benefits of London Life Insurance Co.

1970-72: First comes to Ottawa as local manager, employee benefits of London Life Insurance Co.

1980-85:  Serves as alderman and councillor for Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton.

1985-91 : Serves as mayor of Ottawa.

1988: Ottawa hosts Grey Cup following Jim Durrell’s efforts.

1993: Orchestrates land swap with National Capital Commission to enable construction of baseball stadium for Ottawa Lynx.

1996: Named president of Ottawa Rough Riders football team.

1998-2006: Serves on board of Business Development Bank of Canada.

1999-2008: Serves as director for Ottawa International Airport Authority; oversees $310-million construction of new airport terminal in 2003, $95-million expansion wing and the demolition of old airport in 2008.

2000: Becomes member of United Way / Centraide Ottawa campaign cabinet; becomes head of Capital Dodge car dealership.

2005: Begins involvement with the Ottawa Hospital Foundation’s President’s Breakfast fundraising campaign.

2006-07: Named chair of the Ottawa Convention Centre and oversees approval of plan to demolish old Ottawa Congress Centre in 2008 and build $159-million new centre.

April 2011: Ottawa Convention Centre opens doors; construction project is on time and within budget.

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