Hamilton’s revitalized downtown shows that financial incentives, efforts to improve safety and appearance, and creative culture can combine to make a downtown attractive again, writes City of Hamilton Manager of Commercial Districts and Small Business Judy Lam in an article published in the latest edition of the Economic Development Journal.
Hamilton “experienced a significant downturn in the 1990’s and 2000’s”, Lam writes and “some residents did not believe there was a way out of the spiralling slump”.
“Hamilton’s downtown did rebound and is now considered a revitalized, cool city with people from the nearby Greater Toronto Area moving in. Developers, investors, and newcomers are taking a second look at this city of opportunity”, Lam continues.
“The downtown has recently been experiencing exploding growth in multi-residential construction combined with a significant drop in office vacancies. Heritage buildings are being brought back to renewed life and people are asking ‘when did Hamilton become so cool’? The city has even been called the “Brooklyn” of the north because of our similarities to the number of artists that moved into the city adding to the creative culture”.
Lam outlines the steps taken to incentivize development in Downtown Hamilton and now the City plans to respond to the economic impact of the COVID pandemic on redevelopment plans.
Over 3,000 residential units have redeveloped and received tax incentives, with over 6,000 residential units planned.
The City provides incentives for small businesses to improve their facades and to include art – such as murals – with matching grants of up to $10,000.
Making downtown “feel clean and safe” is needed to spur investment, Lam writes.
“For cities that have a significant urban district, there are aspects of downtowns that make some people uncomfortable. For large cities, the number of panhandlers or homeless blend in and become accepted as part of city living. However, for cities that do not have the same density, people can feel unsafe and choose to avoid downtown”.
Lam writes that the highly visible Hamilton Police Action units are key to “reduce violence, improve safety and enhance the quality of life in Hamilton’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods”.
The Social Navigator Program is key “to address the specific needs and underlying issues of the person that may be the result of lack of housing, mental health, addiction or lack of stable finances and housing. This is a new approach to breaking the cycle of repeat offenders that is improving outcomes and optimizing resources and is now a permanent program due to its great success”.
Making downtowns more pedestrian friendly is important to economic development, Lam writes. Adding bicycle racks, pedestrianization of Gore Park, cleaning up alleyways, and piloting on-street patios are some of the projects mentioned.
Prior to the pandemic, the City’s redevelopment strategies success meant financial incentives could be slowly phased out at 10 percent per year.
“As downtown improves, it is hoped that downtown desirability will eventually eliminate the need to offer such incentives by providing the developers with the required profit margins to carry out these projects”.
A reason for stepping down incentives is to encourage developers to start projects.
“This has the effect of encouraging who were on the fence about when to develop their sites, to do it sooner rather than later”.
COVID is a challenge for all businesses, especially small businesses and restaurants. Lam shares some of the initiatives launched by Hamilton’s Economic Development Division to assists businesses with online sales and marketing.
On-street patios are key to helping restaurants survive. Internally, “Economic Development absorbed the cost of the lost parking revenue and other administrative costs of patios on public property”.
Lam submitted her article late in 2020, prior to Ontario’s COVID third wave.
“The winter season has limited the benefit of outdoor patios and restauranteurs are admittedly nervous about their survival in the cold season. Patios helped them survive for now but the effects of shutting down patios would be catastrophic”.
Economic Development is looking to change the City’s financial incentives for office landlords to provide more flexibility considering the uncertainty resulting from COVID.
“Discussions with office landlords have found that while tenants initially thought they needed less space while employees were working remotely, some tenants have realized that downsizing to less space won’t work because of the need to social distance. One trend that is emerging is that tenants are renegotiating shorter lease terms.
Staff will bring to Council a proposal “to tweak our office incentive program to allow for shorter lease terms as well as amendments that will encourage start-up companies to secure space in downtown Hamilton”.