Though Hamilton keeps capturing top spots on “Best Places to Invest” lists and has a thriving arts and culture sector, the city still a rep for being a gritty, industrial town. But a lot has changed in the last decade and Hamilton’s revitalization is ushering in an entirely new economic landscape and urban geography.
We caught up with Glen Norton, Hamilton’s Manager of Urban Renewal, Planning & Economic Development Department, to chat about the city’s best streets for strolling, his background in design and the effect all the recent real estate activity has had on the local economy.
BuzzBuzzHome: How long have you lived in Hamilton?
Glen Norton: I was working for Scotiabank in Kitchener-Waterloo and in 1991 they transferred me to Hamilton. I must admit I wasn’t impressed. I was driving in and thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve got two baby girls and this looks like a scary place.”
BBH: You must have seen it undergo a number of changes since then.
GN: Absolutely. I’ve seen a fair number of our bigger employers go out of business and leave. And with that came some of the side effects such as the downtown becoming less vital and a little shabby, shall we say. In the last four, five years – if not more – I’ve seen it come back. I’ve seen the economy diversify.
We’re not so dependent on the steel industry though it’s certainly something we’re quite proud of. I’ve seen us go from a steel production city to the most diverse economy in Canada, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
BBH: So that diversification process really helped Hamilton turn a corner?
GN: Right, right. That diversification is why we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Ontario, if not Canada. Our level of employment is very level here. It doesn’t fluctuate.
BBH: You have a business degree but also a diploma in landscape architectural technology. How has that influenced your work?
GN: It’s really quite handy to have some left brain and some right brain background. With the design background and having a lot of private sector experience, it gives me a broader perspective of how a good build environment affects the business and the culture of a city.
BBH: What role do small business and Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) play in Hamilton’s urban renewal?
GN: They play a very important role. We have 13 BIAs and the occupancy rate is highest in the BIAs and the success of the businesses is higher. There’s something to be said for businesses banding together and doing joint marketing efforts, creating street festivals such as the Sew Hungry event on Ottawa Street.
Small business is sustainable. A silver bullet solution with one big employer coming to town and bringing thousands and thousands of jobs – you’re dependent on them. With small business, you’ve diversified your risk. And you’ve got the strength of many people to build upon.
BBH: I understand there are still a couple sections of the downtown core that have a number of boarded up storefronts. What are you doing to address this issue?
GN: There are a lot fewer of those than you might think. For instance, on James Street North now there aren’t any boarded up spaces. And I couldn’t have said that five years ago.
The one area of the city that still poses a challenge is on Barton Street. But that has the attention of the media as well as city staff and councillors, so it’s got some momentum.
Again, it will be the small business people who will lead the charge in revitalizing that street. We’re already seeing some early signs of life because there are some investors buying property there and fixing them using our financial incentives.
BBH: Can you tell me more about the financial incentives?
GN: The one that makes the most difference to a small business person is our facade grants. For instance, on a corner property in a BIA, you can get a matching grant of $25,000. That means you’re spending $50,000 in total, but the city’s picking up half of it. You can do a lot of work and make a significant change.
BBH: Are there any misconceptions about Hamilton that you’d like to clear up?
GN: The first one is that we’re a dirty, gritty steel city. We’re still manufacturing steel, but it’s a highly mechanized, high-tech process so it doesn’t employ as many people as it once did, but it still contributes out our economy.
The misconception is that’s where most of the jobs are. We have a more diversified economy than Toronto, or Vancouver or Calgary.
The other one is that we don’t have great choice in houses – they’re all old and small and so on. It’s simply not true. We have some wide tree lined streets with three-storey Victorian homes, but we also have great suburban neighbourhoods in places like Ancaster. Then we have the third aspect of housing choices, which is condos. We have whatever it is you’re looking for in housing.
BBH: So much has been written about Hamilton is one of the best places to invest in real estate. What effect has that had on the local economy?
GN: I make this distinction often: just the sale of a property doesn’t do anything for the economy. It’s what comes after the sale. It’s someone who’s now into the renewal economy and thinks, “I’m going to improve that building and I’m going to hire local trades people and put it towards a higher and better use than it was before.” In that context, it’s improving the housing stock so that it’s more desirable to more people.
From a commercial standpoint, a building that may not have been fully utilized before that puts creative offices or retail into that space – that brings new jobs to the city. It brings more people who are going to live in the city. You get a more vibrant community and you get increased taxes. That’s what economic development is about. It’s about making the city a better place to live for citizens and creating new sources of income for the city so that the city, in turn, can re-invest those tax funds into infrastructure and cultural facilities.
BBH: Is there a hidden gem that visitors should check out?
GN: I would say there are several. Ottawa Street is a great spot if you’re looking for something for your home with its antique stores and home accessories. It’s a nice street where you can stop in for a coffee too. It makes for a great Saturday. Lock Street would be another great street to stroll along.
The waterfront is a hidden gem too. People don’t realize what a beautiful waterfront we have. I encourage people to find the biking and walking trails that we have there.
Interested in buying a home in the hammer? Check out these new homes in Hamilton.