• The City of Hamilton Ontario is finally getting some respect. Anyone who has come to Robert Floris’s Mortgage Architects office  in Hamilton would have known what a great city this is and to please keep it a secret.I realize that commuters go by the QEW and see our industry( not a great visual). This is only part of our  us. Where else do you have closely knit communities, great traffic flow, a safe area and generally a public that is courteous. Try finding this in other larger cities of Ontario.

    Try buying a home in Hamilton and you will live like a king as compared to Toronto. With mortgage rates so low and Hamilton properties so affordable it is no wonder we have been discovered. Please if you have moved here from elsewhere, please keep it a secret





    Hamilton: The Comeback Kid of Canadian cities
    At one point during the fourth annual Hamilton Economic Summit (HES) in May, one of the attendees approached the event’s managing director, Richard Allen, to enthuse about “the raging optimism” evident, he believed, in the city that steel built. And if indeed true, a good deal of the credit for the turnaround in the mood of a city – which a few short years ago was perilously close to suffering the unfortunate fate of many Rust Belt cities in the U.S. Midwest – is the economic summit itself. In fact, one of Hamilton’s leading business figures, Richard Koroscil, the president and CEO of Hamilton International Airport, believes the first summit back in 2008, organized by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, was the “turning point” in the city’s fortunes.

    “It was the first time that the leaders in the community got together to see if we could come up with a common vision for the city’s future – about where we wanted to go, what kind of economic trajectory we wanted to be on.”

    When pressed about where Hamilton wanted “to go,” Koroscil unabashedly replies, “We wanted to ratchet up our standing on the lists that rank the economic and business competitiveness of Canadian cities.” By such a measurement the city’s accomplishments over the last four to five years are nothing short of astonishing.

    Ponder a few of the distinctions that The Hammer has recently racked up. The influential Financial Times of London ranks Hamilton as one of the top 10 large cities in North America: seven in terms of infrastructure and nine in terms of investment. The Calgary-based Real Estate Investment Network (REIN) recently cited Hamilton as the third-best city in Canada for investment after Calgary and Edmonton, and the U.S.-based Site Selection Magazine positions Hamilton as one of the top five best places to invest in Canada.

    This is pretty heady stuff for a classic Canadian lunch-bucket industrial town which shed over 33,000 manufacturing jobs in recent years as traditional industries like steel consolidated and contracted. And the transformation of Hamilton from beleaguered to bountiful is evident in vitally important economic stats like employment numbers and vacancy rates. “Right now, we’re sitting on a 5.9-per-cent unemployment rate,” notes David Adames, the president and CEO of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, compared to the provincial average is over eight per cent. And as recently as 2008-2009 Hamilton’s unemployment rate was considerably below the national and provincial averages.

    Then there’s the real-estate good-news story. As Neil Everson, the City of Hamilton’s director of economic development, notes: “Between 2009-2010 the downtown vacancy decreased by 12 per cent and major site selection firms are predicting that the rate will be slashed substantially more over the next twelve months.” Even better news: in 2010 the city of Hamilton topped – for the first time – a billion dollars in new construction permits, much of it non-residential.

    Add to these upbeat stats recent announcements of significant new investments in the city and it is no wonder Hamilton’s morale has taken an uptick. Among the new initiatives: Canada Bread is building the largest bakery in the country here; ArcelorMittalDofasco is injecting hundreds of millions of dollars to make its facilities in the city the poster boy of advanced steelmaking worldwide; and CANMET, the federal government’s material and metals laboratory, has recently relocated to a LEED-certified, state-of-the-art 140,000-sq.-ft. facility in McMaster Innovation Park, itself a poster-perfect picture for inspired (and, yes, innovative) economic development.

    “The energy level at this year’s summit was amazing,” says Richard Koroscil, “because Hamiltonians are seeing tangible signs of people coming to invest in the community and create jobs.” But, as Koroscil also notes, the ‘new’ Hamilton is radically transformed from the old. “We’re not Steel Town anymore,” he observes, “we’re a whole range of businesses from small to large; we’re about education and health services and transportation and the arts.”

    As he’s also quick to point out, although old industries like steelmaking remain an important part of the economic mix in Hamilton, they too have changed. The city’s two major steel mills once employed more than 20,000 people in the city; they now employ 4,500 to 5,000. But what they lost in numbers, they gained in high-tech productivity. As Juergen Schachler, the head of ArcelorMittalDofasco, frequently notes, steelmaking is now very high-tech value-added advanced manufacturing.

    So how did the city execute the transformation from an old economy “has-been” to new economy “high flyer?” For Neil Everson, Hamilton’s director of economic development, Ground Zero was the period after the city’s amalgamation in 2001 when a wholesale “rethink” of the development strategy was initiated. And possibly the buzzword that best captures its spirit is… diversification.

    “We are one of the first three municipalities to opt for a ‘cluster-based’ approach,” says Everson, “where we focused on specific industries and sectors that could help us diversify the local economy.” As such, Everson and his team are interested in companies that are both innovative and global (but in a good way). These include value-added manufacturers so the city is not in competition with offshore dollar-a-day, low-wage jurisdictions.

    During the strategic rethink it was also quickly determined that the best way to attract such economic stars is to leverage the city’s key regional economic assets. These include its location at the centre of the Golden Horseshoe, one of the largest economic conurbations in North America; its extraordinary integrated inter-modal transportation infrastructure, which uniquely combines rail, road, air and marine; its superb educational and research assets focused on McMaster University, Mohawk College and Redeemer University College; and a first-class health sciences complex.

    To leverage all those assets meant engaging the whole community in the economic development exercise, which is why initiatives like the economic summit became so central to the city’s economic rejuvenation. “Years ago we hummed along on an industrial base, which has largely gone off-shore,” argues Richard Allen, the HES’s managing director. “Our resilience, going forward, will be through diversification, particularly smaller businesses in the knowledge-based and service sectors.”

    Among the most successful public/private sector collaborations has been leveraging McMaster University’s intellectual and research resources to promote economic development. Nowhere is that more in evidence than at McMaster Innovation Park, a one-time ‘old industry’ refrigerator manufacturing complex that has been transformed into an incubator for innovative start-up companies. It is now almost fully booked.

    Among its most intriguing enterprises is the Innovation Factory (IF), a non-profit gateway that connects new and expanding businesses with commercialization experts, entrepreneurs and strategists whose goal is to generate jobs and wealth. Launched in November 2010, IF has enjoyed great success. Says its executive director, Ron Neumann: “I have been amazed by the caliber of entrepreneurial ideas in Hamilton. This confirms to me that there is a high demand for our services.”

    Of course, MIP’s crown jewel to date, at least, is CANMET, the Government of Canada’s materials and metals testing lab, which recently relocated from Ottawa to Hamilton. “About 90 per cent of the lab’s clients are within a 100-mile radius of Hamilton,” notes Neil Everson, “and its presence here is a good reason why ArcelorMittalDofasco is committing so much money to this community.” What better partner could there be for the steel giant in perfecting its steelmaking technology than CANMET. Clearly, government, business and the R&D capacities of universities, working together, can pay big dividends.

    But if creating what Richard Allen calls an “innovation pipeline” for high-tech advanced manufacturing companies is central to Hamilton’s economic renewal, it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. The city is as keen to attract what well-known urban theorist Richard Florida calls “the creative class” of artists, filmmakers, advertising types and others to the city, as well. And the revival of downtown Hamilton – the hub of the much larger Lower City – is now perceived as critical to the success of this part of the strategy.

    Indeed, the theme of this year’s economic summit was strategies to rehabilitate the city’s core. “Having an historic downtown is a huge asset for our community,” argues Richard Allen. This sentiment is shared by Graham Crawford, the founder of a unique organization (the Hamilton HIStory + HERitage Museum) dedicated to chronicling the city’s past. “No matter what Hazel (McCallion, mayor) does, Mississauga will always be a giant suburb.”

    Long neglected, Hamilton’s civic heart is now off life-support, and young Hamiltonians like business executive Don Forbes, of the accounting firm of Grant Thornton, rallied the troops at the HES with calls about “downtown being back.” “We’re already there and it’s being noticed…Downtown Hamilton has good bones. And it’s up to us to put the flesh back on them.” From the renovation of the historic Lister Block to the rehabilitation of the 1980s-era Sheraton Hotel, Hamilton’s facelift proceeds, one project and one nip and tuck at a time.

    Also critical to downtown Hamilton’s renewal is seamlessly connecting it to other parts of the city and beyond to the wider Greater Toronto-Horseshoe Area. Key to achieving both goals is a Lower City light rapid transit system and the commencement of an all-day, two-way GO train service between Hamilton and Toronto. Both initiatives are in different planning stages. Still, on one point everyone seems to agree: the province’s 2005 Places to Grow Act, which encourages the “intensification” of Ontario’s big cities, has been a boon to Hamilton’s urban and economic renewal.

    Downtown renewal may be a “work in progress,” but that hasn’t deterred the out-of-town creative class from discovering the city. Among those making the trek from Toronto are two animation film studios, a fact duly noted at the HES. Among the reasons: low operating costs and bargain-basement real-estate prices (by Toronto standards). But that’s not the whole story. Over the last few years creative districts have sprung up in the city’s Hess Village and on James Street North, with its galleries, cafes and bistros.

    No one was more surprised at this new dimension of Hamilton life than Graham Crawford, the retired businessman and now museum owner who returned to his native Hamilton from Toronto five years ago. Like a lot of ‘real estate refugees’ he was attracted by, yes, rock-bottom real estate. “I bought a six-bedroom walnut-paneled stone mansion in Hamilton’s Rosedale for less than the price of my Victorian row house in Cabbagetown.”

    But Crawford quickly discovered there was a real “buzz” in the city, as evidenced by the monthly “art crawl” on James Street North, where 1,000 to 1,500 folks convene to revel in the city’s creative vibe. So smitten was Crawford by “the scene,” he established his not-for-profit museum (HIStory + HERitage) in a late 19th-century building on James Street North. “What is truly great about this place is that it has always been an independent city; it’s never been a suburb of anything.”

    Clearly Crawford, like many Hamiltonians, believes the city is back – and getting better and better. That’s a fact everyone else now seems to be discovering.

    Robert Floris is a mortgage planner in the Hamilton Ontario area

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