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POSTED ON 19/03/07

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Reinventing Hamilton:
Mix of tax cuts, good road and rail links help city rebound from the economic downturn in the '90s
JAMES RUSK

HAMILTON -- When George Brown decided two years ago to chase his dream after 25 years as a financial services executive, he bought a building in Hamilton and opened Brownies Downtown Fine Food and Spirit.

He could have gone elsewhere, but he chose to open in his hometown.

"It's a great city, lot's of good things are happening," Mr. Brown said.

It might not have been that way.

When the wave of economic change set off by free trade and amplified by globalization swept over Canada as the last century closed, Hamilton could have been Canada's rust-belt city.

But through the downturn, it maintained its cultural institutions -- the principal horn of the Boston Symphony was recently recruited as the new conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic -- and Mr. Brown said his restaurant is full on theatre nights.

And despite downsizing in the steel industry, a wave of plant closings and boarded-up shops downtown, Hamilton did not plummet as far in the 1990s as many of the old industrial cities in the U.S. Northeast. Now Steeltown seems to be coming back off the mat.

"Hamilton is kind of reinventing itself," said Len Falco, a management consultant who is past president of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. The 21st-century model for the city is working, he said. "We're starting to see companies and businesses move this way."

The data back Mr. Falco up.

In the six years from 1995 to 2000, Hamilton averaged just under $378-million a year in building permits. In the first six years of the new century, the average was just over $627-million a year, according to city figures.

The building numbers are not just civic boosterism. Building permits are a basic indicator of the state of a city's economy, as investment in bricks and mortar, concrete and steel, measures both its current economic strength and the confidence that people have in its future.

What kept Hamilton from irreversible decline and promises to fuel future growth is one of the most basic factors in the economic success equation -- location, location, location.

Hamilton's geography makes it a good place to do business, said Terry Cooke, a local businessman who was the last chair of the regional government of Hamilton-Wentworth before it was merged into a single city in 2001, amalgamating the city of Hamilton with Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Glanbrook and Stoney Creek.

With its location at the western end of Lake Ontario, Hamilton is at the hinge point of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, close to Toronto, the Niagara Peninsula, the U.S. border and the rapidly growing industrial cities of Southwestern Ontario, such as Woodstock.

On top of its road and rail links, it is also the third-largest port in Canada, and has an airport that, unlike Toronto's Pearson International, operates 24 hours a day, Mr. Falco noted.

Mr. Falco, Mr. Cooke and Mayor Fred Eisenberger all agree that the amalgamation was an important factor in the comeback. That allowed the city to take a unified approach to prospective investors and to make a decision to lower taxes on commercial and industrial properties.

Between 2000 and 2006, the tax rate on commercial property came down by 40 per cent, on industrial property by 43 per cent and on large industrial properties by 38 per cent, according to city data.

The commercial rates, while still slightly higher than in adjacent municipalities, are now more in line with the competition, but the industrial rates still need to be reduced more, Mr. Falco said.

While the health-care industry is now the largest employer in Hamilton, the city expects its future growth will come from light industry, including the automotive sector and distribution facilities, the mayor said.

A study by the planning firm Hemson Consulting Ltd. forecast last November that the city needs to open about 1,000 hectares of new industrial parkland if it is to meet its job-growth target of 59,000 jobs in new industrial parks by 2031.

To do this, the consulting firm proposed the city expand an existing industrial park by 150 hectares and build a new 850-hectare park adjacent to the airport.

Mr. Eisenberger dug his heels in at the report, and, at his behest, the matter was sent back to city staff for further study.

The mayor said that while he recognizes the city will need a new industrial park in the airport area, he was concerned the proposal ignored 120 to 160 hectares of brownfield lands -- where industries once stood -- around the Hamilton waterfront, which "we can't walk away from."

Mr. Eisenberger said he is looking for ways to ensure the brownfield sites get used, as this allows the city to make use of existing infrastructure such as roads, sewers and even transit.

This might mean the city and other governments will have to get together to clean up brownfield sites.

But Mr. Falco said he hopes the city moves quickly to approve and develop the new industrial lands proposed by the consultant. "We don't want to drag our heals on that. . . . The airport lands are critical to encouraging investment."


© Copyright 2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 
The mayor said that while he recognizes the city will need a new industrial park in the airport area, he was concerned the proposal ignored 120 to 160 hectares of brownfield lands -- where industries once stood -- around the Hamilton waterfront, which "we can't walk away from."
Good man. Very encouraging!
 
Absolutely. Especially as the airport is a bit of a hike from even the suburban fringe of Hamilton at Rymal Road. The old industrial area also has better highway (with the direct link via Burlington Street mini-Gardiner) and rail access.

Burlington Street is fun to drive and neat, day or night.
 
And it's an urbanistic throwback to the way the elevated Gardiner *was*, back in the industrial-port 60s...
 
Everyone: I have found Hamilton to be an interesting city. I have only been there myself briefly-I wonder if the relationship that HML has with TOR is similar to Baltimore's relationship with Washington,DC-just 40 miles apart for both? Does Hamilton's proximity to Toronto help or hurt things? Does Hamilton attract people to it because of a lower cost of living or other city amenities? Any thoughts anyone? Thanks in advance-Long Island Mike
 
A friend of mine lives in Hamilton, and he routinely chuckles over Torontonians who shell out 400 grand for the same sized house that he got there for 90 grand.
 
Does he also chuckle when they sell them for 600 grand a few years later?
 
He must also think New Yorkers, Londoners, Parisians, etc, are a totally hilarious bunch.
 
Hamilton needs better GO train service to really take off. Right now it's much more annoying to get from Hamilton to Toronto than it is from Burlington or Oakville. The last AM train leaves Hamilton at 7:04! It also takes over an hour just to get from station to station...
 
You're right, but the constraint is the lack of track capacity. New track will have to be built before more trains can be run into Hamilton, or even to Burlington for that matter. This is the ongoing problem with GO Transit, and yes it's tiresome.
 
It's partly track capacity, but it's also CP, which is far less friendly to passenger rail operators than CN. Beyond Bayview Junction, GO operates on CP (TH&B) tracks, and CP has refused to allow any additional services. A couple of years ago, VIA wanted to extend the Ottawa and Montreal services that currently run through to Oakville and Aldershot on to Hamilton, but CP flatly refused. They'll probably extort hundreds of millions in track improvements from governments before they allow more service.
 
A strong Hamilton is good for the entire region and province. I want to believe in it. We have to believe in it if we want the province to prosper. I remember a Grid cover a while back saying how all the cool kids are going to Hamilton but I was checking out some employment data on Statscan and the numbers are still sobering:

Toronto employment gain September 2012 to September 2013: 128 500

Hamiliton employment gain September 2012 to September 2013: -13 100

That is even before the US Steel announcement posted by Admiral
 
Heh, it looks like spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a 60s style freeway network didn't stop Hamilton's economy from declining after all. And now it also has worse transit ridership than Mississauga. Hamilton is being reinvented all right.
 
Heh, it looks like spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a 60s style freeway network didn't stop Hamilton's economy from declining after all. And now it also has worse transit ridership than Mississauga. Hamilton is being reinvented all right.

Yes...I have always thought that Hamilton's reinvention was as a farther afield suburb of Toronto.
 

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