Special Report: Creative City

A Tale of Two Summits

It's absolutely insane that our civic leaders have largely ignored the voices in our community who have been saying the same things for years as experts like Cunningham.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published May 20, 2010

The story being told about Hamilton's Economic Summit is compelling. It's full of inspiring words, like the ones the Hamilton Spectator put on the front page of Tuesday's paper: collaboration, renewal, synergy (that one came up a ton), momentum, restoration, opportunity.

It's a story about "lively discussions", "vibrant exchanges of ideas", and panels of delegates who sat down and really hammered out the way forward for the city.

That's the story. Then there's the reality.

A Tale of Two Events

I attended the summit on behalf of the design company I work for, which is a member of the Chamber of Commerce. I was excited about the opportunity to take part and looked forward to discussing some of the creative ideas that my company believes would help our business and the city, and the ideas on urban renewal that are central to Raise the Hammer.

There were really two events at the summit. The first, in the morning, was a series of three panels which I'll discuss shortly.

The second was an afternoon event that featured presentations on the McMaster Innovation Park (MIP) and a similar facility in Philadelphia called the Science Center, followed by the keynote address, A Renewal Model for Hamilton, by Storm Cunningham.

The speaker from the Science Center, Jeanne Mell, VP of Marketing and Communications, was quite interesting. This facility in Philly is incredible and a worthy role model for MIP.

I was particularly intrigued by the QED Program, which provides early-stage funding for life science research in between the research and commercial investment stages, because it seemed to fit the bill for an interesting way to fund new, high-growth companies, something I advocated in an earlier article.

What really stood out about the Science Center is how incredibly different it is from the bland "employment lands" planned for the area around the airport. The Science Center is situated "in the heart of a vibrant, walk-able, dynamic community ... filled with students, shops, restaurants and nightspots".

Mell's key piece of advice for MIP's leaders was also interesting, which was to pay careful attention to the tenant mix in the park, ensuring that every tenant fits your long-term goals.

"Sometimes," she said, "you take on people because you want to rent out your facilities and they will pay top dollar for the space, but then years later, you ask, 'What the hell are they doing here? And how do we get them out?'"

[Note on quotations in this article: I took notes on my laptop during the summit as people spoke, but I did not record the summit and my quotations are not word-for-word, however, they accurately reflect what the person said as close to word-for-word as I could type at the time.]

Cunningham's Renewal Model

Storm Cunningham gave an excellent presentation at the end of the day. It was interesting, relevant, and bang on.

It was also deeply frustrating. It's absolutely insane that our civic leaders have largely ignored the voices in our community who have been saying the same things for years as experts like Cunningham.

As a reader of Raise the Hammer, you already know what I'm talking about. Take RTH editor Ryan McGreal for example. His first article on RTH was published December 14, 2004. That's over five years ago!

In that time, he's published an enormous number of articles calling on our city to change that all dovetail neatly with the advice of experts like Cunningham and are just as cogently argued, if not more so. And of course, he's just one of many in this city, some of whom also contribute to RTH, others who do not, who for years have been arguing for progressive, renewing, urbanist policies.

It's absolutely insane that our civic leaders have largely ignored the voices in our community who have been saying the same things for years as experts like Cunningham.

To be fair, these arguments have not gone entirely unheard. The selection of the West Harbour as the Pan Am stadium site is a great example. However, you only need to read a smattering of the ways in which this city fails at being the best place to raise a child to see how badly we fare at achieving a holistic, integrated, consistently urbanist approach to policy-making in Hamilton.

Back to Cunningham. His big point was that we need to create what he calls a renewal engine, an organization that focuses on regenerating and renewing natural and built assets: for example, taking a dilapidated industrial property like the Rheem plant and turning it into a wonderful stadium.

He was absolutely clear on this: the stadium must be on the waterfront, and must be born out of a regenerative process. He believes: "The Pan Am Games can trigger revitalizing critical mass (assuming the stadium is downtown) if it is accompanied by a program of renewal." [Emphasis mine.]

He made another interesting point that is directly applicable to Hamilton's strategy of attracting companies from outside the city, such as the recent move here by Canada Bread:

For 30 years, planners have taught that the way to revitalize is for the city to give away free land and tax revenues and then with the employers this attracts, you can build your revenues. What actually happens is you just steal jobs from one community or another until they leave. Smart communities are getting companies to stay in the city to raise their families.

I think it's great the Canada Bread moved here, and Cunningham would probably agree. However, there's no question it would be better if we were creating companies here that had deep roots in our community.

An Intimidating Environment Inhibits Idea Exchange

The panels in the morning were split into two different events. The "Next Generation" delegates were the 20- and 30-somethings that represent "the future of this city".

Although I certainly qualify for membership in this group, at least based on age (I make no claims re. the future of Hamilton), I was grouped with the older crowd, which was slated to participate in three different panels, on the Pan Am Games, Downtown Redevelopment, and Transportation Infrastructure.

Apparently the existence of the Next Generation group was due to recommendations from the previous summit. I'm not certain why organizers would want to separate the "future of the city" from the present of the city (you can draw your own conclusions). Practically speaking, this just means that I don't have any idea what was discussed by the other group or how things were conducted there.

The panels I went to were each an hour long. They were conducted in a huge rectangular room with soaring ceilings, with a raised stage in the middle where the panelists and the moderator sat.

The audience was seated along three walls, in a U-shape around the podium. Three rows of chairs accommodated the 200 or so people present. Photographers and videographers shot film as people spoke.

The panels were ably moderated by McMaster business school professor Nick Bontis. Bontis is a wiry, energetic person who appears completely comfortable in the spotlight. Almost miraculously, he managed to keep things precisely on time.

I could tell Bontis genuinely wanted a vibrant, healthy debate to take place. The big problem, however, was that the setup was extremely unfriendly towards this goal.

Most people are terrified of public speaking. Think about the environment I just described. Would you feel comfortable standing up in front of a room that contains a cross-section of business people and municipal politicians, and giving your opinion while local media film you?

The result of this environment was that very few people spoke up at all. Of those who did, at least half were municipal politicians who are accustomed to speaking in front of crowds. The vast majority of those present were silent.

That's a big problem for a summit that is supposed to be about the exchange of ideas. I think Bontis knew it, too, because he hinted at the lack of discussion several times, saying that participants were being "too polite" and at one point encouraging Harry Stinson to "stir up some controversy".

I don't think that people were being too polite. I think they were just too scared to speak up, and I don't blame them one bit.

Speaking Up On Truck Routes

I'm not going to get too much into the content of the first two panels too much at this point, since there may be room for another article on the subject and I've probably gone on long enough.

It was the during the third panel that I decided I'd kick myself if I didn't get my hands on a microphone and voice my opinion, in spite of how nervous I felt about doing so.

In the last couple of weeks, I'd thought about what I wanted to discuss at the summit, because I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to discuss practical solutions to some of the problems facing the city.

Because this panel was about transportation, I decided I wanted to talk about three issues: truck routes, mainly because of the recent truck route master plan, a bicycle route network, and the perennial issue of one-way streets in the core.

I became doubly committed to speaking out after panelist Bob Armstrong, President of the Supply Chain and Logistics Association of Canada, recommended that Hamilton become a multi-modal distribution centre. I'm all for transporting goods via ships and rail, but the thought of becoming a hub for trucks and dreary warehouses is not something I can bear.

What I thought I'd say was something like the following, which I prepared ahead of time:

Hamilton's goal of being "the best place to raise a child" is an ambitious vision statement intended as a basis to transform the city.

"Best" is a big word. The goal is not "to be a good place to raise a child", "to be a decent place to raise a child", or even, "to be a safe place to raise a child". "Best" says that it is not enough just to do everything right for children as a city: we actually have to do everything better than everyone else - better than Vancouver, better than Montreal, better than Paris.

What is best for children is also best for the parents of those children who put their needs first. And it's also best for the skilled, educated, creative individuals who we try and attract as a company.

"To be the best place to raise a child" ought to be a prism through which all municipal decisions are viewed and evaluated.

However, this is clearly not the case. Three selected examples:

  • the city recently recommended retaining a truck route on Dundurn Street between York and King over the objections of residents, who pointed out the lack of stop signs or stop lights on this section, which is a block away from an elementary school and a public park.
  • one-way streets are more dangerous for children than two-way streets, with an overall injury rate in Hamilton 2.5 times higher on one-way streets than on two-way streets, but we rarely convert them.
  • we still don't have a continuous bicycle network in the city, even though having one would allow children to be mobile, empowering them while keeping them safe.
  • My question: is Hamilton ready to get serious about this goal? Will Hamilton mandate that every planning document include a section where the planer defends their recommendations in the context of this goal?

That's what I wanted to say. Unfortunately, two things conspired against me presenting these points. The first is that my notes were on my laptop, but I had to stand up and speak into a microphone (I had been expecting small groups of people working together on problems, not a speak-in-public type of situation).

This meant I had to distill my points into a few scrawled notes on the back of the summit program. In doing so, I eliminated the bike network item and just tried to keep it simple.

The second obstacle was the format of the event. I am not an experienced public speaker. The prospect of speaking in front of the group was terrifying to the point that after I received the microphone and was waiting for the previous person to finish speaking, I could literally feel my heart pounding in my chest.

All that aside, I still managed to make my points, get a laugh out of the crowd, and forcefully argue against a future dominated by trucking.

Two things came out of this. The first is something I regret. Armstrong misunderstood my remarks about attracting creative people to Hamilton, taking it as a criticism of people employed in the transportation industry (i.e. that they are not creative).

Creative people desire livable neighbourhoods, and having 18-wheelers roaring down residential streets is in direct opposition to that.

That was not at all what I meant: I simply meant that creative people desire livable neighbourhoods, and having 18-wheelers roaring down residential streets is in direct opposition to that.

The second is something I'm proud of. "Safety is an issue," agreed Armstrong. "We believe that small delivery vehicles [instead of transport trucks] should be used for delivery within the downtown."

He further recommended that any logistics centres be situated outside the downtown and next to highways instead.

As a result, the final recommendation of this third panel became to "use small delivery vehicles to service downtown".

We'll see if this recommendation is acted on.

[Editor's note: The first version of this piece incorrectly stated that Tyler MacLeod, past chairman of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, moderated the discussions. This has been updated to reflect that the actual moderator was Nick Bontis. RTH regrets the error.]

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz

23 Comments

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 09:07:10

great job Ade. Great recap of the event too.
I'm quite certain that everyone in the room knew exactly what you meant re: creative types not wanting to live next to speeding 18 wheelers. Our old boys club are pro's at finding a way to divert attention from the real issue, or in this case your question, and try to avoid having to answer.

Not that it matters whether they answer or not. Nothing will change. Nothing ever does.

I have a few other thoughts to post on your piece, and will make time later. I just wanted to give you a quick kudos for at least attempting to ask a tough question like that in the face of the previous generation.

Comment edited by jason on 2010-05-20 08:08:40

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 10:01:33

Thanks for the summary and good on you for speaking up. Keep doing it. The experience will give you confidence. Hopefully they'll learn something and change the format next year. Wonder how the 'next generation' panel went. Younger people are usually even more put off by those types of formats.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 10:29:55

I echo Highwaters remark, that a few more times at the mic and you will be a pro.

Comment edited by grassroots are the way forward on 2010-05-20 09:30:13

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By Rene Gauthier` (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 11:42:01

The only way to reduce the trucks and have small delivery vehicles is to designate hubs at three locations and then let the small trucks take over. But the only way that can be brought to fruition is through by-laws and the establishment of more restrictive truck routes. The problem with that is that it's bound to create some frustration and it will result in higher costs in transportation.

That's one debate to start.

As far as making Hamilton a great place to raise a child, that will start with people getting jobs closer to home, which are few and far between. Those who have jobs downtown are the lucky ones. But with that in mind, we need to lure not just manufacturing and warehousing jobs, but R&D, high-tech and even try to lure a big bank to set up its head office in Hamilton. With the way banking is done these days, they really don't all need to be in Toronto.

But even at that, getting good jobs downtown is pointless without a good plan to enforce building codes and perhaps consider expropriation to those who decide they'd rather hold out on developers who want to build nicer building so they can get more money.

We can reduce our property tax burden with more businesses coming in.
Another point to ponder...

I'm full of them!

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 11:46:50

When I read Terry Cooke's presentation the other day I thought he could have copied the whole thing from comments on RTH.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 11:51:12

... we need to lure not just manufacturing and warehousing jobs, but R&D, high-tech and even try to lure a big bank to set up its head office in Hamilton.

This is so true. I was just saying to a friend that it's such a shame that the majority of the high tech professionals (by that I mean scientists, engineers, programmers, web developers, etc) that choose to live here are faced with long commutes and limited networking opportunities.

I'd jump at the chance to be able to shorten my commute and I'd be willing to bet many others would too.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 12:06:22

Armstrong misunderstood my remarks about attracting creative people to Hamilton, taking it as a criticism of people employed in the transportation industry (i.e. that they are not creative). - Adrian

You're being too kind Adrian, he didn't misunderstand, he just used a classic diversion tactic.

Good for you for getting up and speaking up!

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted May 20, 2010 at 12:26:13

@UrbanRenaissance

Ditto. I'm a geek and I'm the last of my classmates to stay in this city. All brilliant computer guys, all of them have moved to Montreal, Burlington, Calgary, etc. Oakville is so close and yet so far thanks to the unusably congested rush-hour QEW/403, and all the GO trains in the world won't get you to an office park in the middle of the Mississauga sprawl.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 20, 2010 at 12:41:33

I'd jump at the chance to be able to shorten my commute and I'd be willing to bet many others would too.

As Adrian recently argued, the best bet to achieve this is to cultivate a tech startup culture here in Hamilton that can grow the kinds of jobs we're talking about.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted May 20, 2010 at 13:22:52

@Ryan

With all the Mac students right there, I'm surprised there aren't more tech start-ups in the west end to capitalize on them... plus fact that the lower cost-of-living in Hamilton's west end probably means you could pay lower wages than in the Mississaga sprawl that seems to be popular with high tech.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 13:24:14

Pxtl wrote:

Oakville is so close and yet so far thanks to the unusably congested rush-hour QEW/403, and all the GO trains in the world won't get you to an office park in the middle of the Mississauga sprawl.

You just described my current situation, I live a 10 minute walk from Hamilton GO, and work 10 minutes from another GO station and yet I can't get from one to the other without detouring through Toronto or Milton. Thankfully I have flex hours so I commute early enough to miss the worst of the 403/QEW nightmare. (And if worse comes to worse I also have the 407) I am job hunting though, so hopefully I can find something with a more reasonable commute.

Ryan wrote:

...the best bet to achieve this is to cultivate a tech startup culture here in Hamilton...

Could not agree more, anyone here got any million dollar ideas? There are more than enough geeks posting here to come up with something good! :-)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 20, 2010 at 13:37:58

Ideas are cheap and plentiful. Funding and execution are scarce and valuable! :)

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted May 20, 2010 at 13:43:58

Yup. I don't need an idea - I need $20K so I can quit my job and implement something.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 13:57:50

Ryan:

Funding and execution are scarce and valuable! :)

Very true, though I would assume both would be easier if one already had a plan or design in place.

Pxtl:

I need $20K so I can quit my job and implement something.

Yep, this city would be a different place if there were investment groups willing to take a chance on people. Have you looked into crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter for funding?

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By Rene Gauthier (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 14:07:10

Look folks,

Hamilton's biggest problem right now is that the city is still perceived to be an industrial city. And I don't believe that the city has done enough to attract the technology businesses into the city. And unfortunately, the city doesn't have the right people in the right places to do this.

The other problem that remains is that the city is decaying from the inside and that doesn't bode well for the city as a whole. We've spent the last 10 years and change reconciling by-laws from the former municipalities into one, while bolstering the downtown cores of the former municipalities. As the result of these multi-centrist values, the real downtown core has suffered from neglect on both the property owner's and the city by-law enforcement teams.

We need to fix the core and do it fast. We need inspection blitzes and a comprehensive central plan which includes expropriation of downtown properties to give the developers the tools they need to get something built here. We don't need anymore parking lots where buildings once stood. With the right people, we can get this done.

I just don't know who will step up...

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By error (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2010 at 15:48:46

The panels were not moderated by Tyler MacLeod, but by Mac business strategy professor Dr. Nick Bontis.

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By Imperial (anonymous) | Posted May 28, 2010 at 14:10:10

Great article Adrian. I agree with the comment about speaking up - the more you do it the more your audience learns to listen and the better you'll get at being the speaker.

I've attended the last two Ec. Summits and I attended the first hour or so of the NextGen part, then I left. I found it formulaic, far too basic, somewhat patronizing that we were at the kids table, and based on 'catchy' bs that is far too often employed when working with 'the future of our city'.

I don't want a freakin custom handprint of my city, or to vote on ideas with my cell phone, I wanted to talk to people about what the reality is of being a young, motivated, entrepreneurial person in this city.

I know the table sessions were intended to do that but we've done all this a dozen times over. Or at least it feels that way to me. I would rather have taken an entire day off work to actually get some traction (to use one of Steph's words). You have a few hundred smart and engaged people in the room and there was really no forum for connecting and getting somethings moved along.

Amongst our communities collective skills, talents, funds and creativity we have the answers to any problem facing us right now. But instead of working together on them we sit down and have people yack at us for hours. Not to say that hearing from great speakers is useless (I'm a TED addict, I'm starting to plan a creative conference) but at some point we need to work together.

I bet we'd all be amazed what issues we could solve if we actually got a huge empty space,
packed it with the same people and did some work together. It's time for doing.

Jeremy

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 28, 2010 at 14:37:36

(I'm a TED addict, I'm starting to plan a creative conference)

Have you been in contact with the TEDx Hamilton folks?

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By Imperial (anonymous) | Posted May 29, 2010 at 19:01:22

Hey Ryan
I know the folks from Kitestring who did the first TEDx, and we hosted a live stream of the TED2010 conference at the Cossart this year as well. We'll be doing it again this year.

I want to do a conference focused on getting stuff done - somehow. Still working on the model.

Jeremy

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 29, 2010 at 22:54:24

Might I humbly suggest a title? The Hamilton Getting Stuff Done Conference.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 31, 2010 at 10:19:30

Too bad HammerCon is already taken...

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By z jones (registered) | Posted May 31, 2010 at 10:24:15

Shame. I'd love to see John Dolbec in a Hamtaro costume.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted May 31, 2010 at 13:54:22

@ z jones

That mental image really made my day.

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