How ‘Art Became The New Steel’ In Hamilton

Listening to the needs of the marketplace develops public policy and sustains cities

Hamilton, Ontario had always been known as a steel-dominated industrial hub, but when the steel industry began to decline 30 years ago, so did the potential for Hamilton’s identity. Yet, despite the loss of this employment sector, the city’s population continued to flourish as the needs of the marketplace changed. Sectors like health sciences and the arts emerged as top employers. Now, digital media, music, animation, film production and performing arts are all considered to be major job and talent attractors that are also forming the physicality of the urban landscape and impacting municipal public policy.

At the recent 2015 Canadian Urban Forum conference on investable cities, which took place on October 8 in Toronto, Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger was on hand to describe “how art became the new steel” and how the creative industries are shifting economic development policy.

“We’ve had a great opportunity for economic change occurring all around the city and the very identity of our community is changing,” he told the crowd in a morning session. “For any city to sustain, cities need to respond to the marketplace, and a marketplace in successful cities is attuned to the fact that interaction with policy makers is crucial in creating effective policies that are addressing their needs.”

Clearly, added Eisenberger, supporting the next generation and managing change in response to the marketplace is essential.

Creative industries are major economic driver

Once considered to be on the fringe of economic development, the creative industries are now a major economic driver, attracting visitors to engage in the city’s culture and rejuvenating older streets and urban areas, which are transforming into cultural hubs.

Two major factors which contributed to the initial success of this new industry included metrics and survey work to gather more information about the sector and also speaking directly with the sector to understand and appreciate its needs.

“It’s always a two-way street and we’ve developed that philosophy in Hamiltion,” added Eisenberger. “This interaction between the sector of the marketplace and the municipal government has led to a change in public policy. Part of this is recognizing the sector as part of economic development strategy.”

Nurturing this change is also about influencing the updating of zoning bylaws, gaining a new perspective of the value of older urban areas and allocating economic development resources to facilitate business development.

Transit and downtown renewal

New marketplace conditions are also spurring change in transit investment and the renewal of downtown Hamilton, which will continue to retain a growing creative industry known to thrive in accessible neighbourhoods. Transit has become a major economic driver and is seen as a means of community growth with Ontario recently pledging $1.2 billion for an 11-kilometre east-west light-rail line that will connect McMaster University to the central business district.

Later in the discussion, Peter Halsall, executive director of the Canadian Urban Institute, said such a community-style approach is far different from the way the City of Toronto views transit.

“Investment is not the same as spending,” he noted. “Around (Toronto) transit spending is about gridlock whereas in Hamilton, it’s used as a growth driver.”

Such examples of growth and opportunity are also inspiring the private sector to look at Hamilton differently and contribute to its downtown renewal.

“Ten years ago we engaged with the private sector and discovered that banks were not willing to lend money for anyone to do a redevelopment in downtown Hamilton,” Eisenberger said. “They weren’t prepared to go there, they didn’t see it as a good investment on their part, they were worried about it and they wouldn’t invest.”

Engaging the private sector is still problematic; however, when the City decided not to wait around for these private investments, it invested $2.6 million in forgone interest through an interest-free loan under the Hamilton Downtown Multi-Residential Property Investment Program. This has resulted in 1,313 residential units with a construction value of more than $200 million.

“That return on investment is about $55 for each dollar that we invested as a city,” added Eisenberger. “That is a significant return that is having a significant difference in how our downtown is evolving. Now, a decade later, we’re phasing out some programs, and traditional banks and credit unions are starting to lend money.”

He said there is a “higher level of confidence” occurring as a result of the city’s initial public policy to make some investments on its own, inspiring the private sector. Although there are many ways the marketplace can engage to develop effective public policy, the creative industries were a major catalyst.

“For Hamilton it started with broadening our view of what the marketplace is and our notion of what types of businesses need support,” he added. “From there, engaging in dialogue between community and municipal leaders and businesses kept our public policy choices relevant and flexible.”

Source: REMI Network, Rebecca Melnyk