When we chase insubstantial opportunities for which Hamilton has no particular ability to deliver, we are merely shifting money from one place to another - or worse, taking it from the causes for which it is better suited.
By Ben Bull
Published February 21, 2013
When I started out on my quest to understand the elements of urban design and how to create a liveable city, I had the good fortune of meeting and interviewing a number of influential politicians. One such civic leader was George Mudie, ex-leader of Leeds City Council.
One lesson George taught me brought to mind the current debate over a Hamilton casino: "Don't go chasing the same things."
George was talking about the Call Centre culture in England, back in the late 1980s. The '80s were a dire time for many British cities. Raw material industries, like coal and steel, were on the decline, and other staples such as finance and car manufacturing were not yet ready to expand beyond their host city base.
All that was left then was, well, all that was left.
Cities were, of course, desperate to attract jobs - any jobs - to get their ledgers back in black. One of the industries they went chasing was Call Centre companies.
After incessant lobbying, Leeds successfully re-located the government's Department of Health and Social Security Call Centre from London. When I talked to Mudie I touted this as a success story.
He didn't see it that way.
"It was the wrong way of doing things," Mudie told me as I sharpened my pencil and scratched my head. "That's not the way to go."
I asked him why. After all, I knew people who were grateful for these new jobs.
"Because you need to build on your unique strengths," he told me. "that's the key point."
Mudie explained how Leeds came to realize that chasing generic opportunities created generic cities, cities of no substance. When towns chase the same things, he told me, when they attract jobs that can easily be re-transplanted, there is no employment stability and no net gain to be had, just the ever-present risk that these jobs will move again.
"Build on your strengths," he reiterated.
This conversation came to mind as I scrolled through the comments section in a recent RTH Hamilton casino article. I realized, as I read, that Hamilton is, once again, on the cusp of championing a business venture which seeks to leverage nothing unique about the host venue.
In short, a Hamilton casino will bring no net new value to the city. Instead, rather than create new opportunity and new wealth, a casino will merely squeeze more money from the local citizenry and provide mostly menial, mediocre jobs for residents who demand, and deserve, more.
If and when the local punters are bled dry, the casino will simply shut up shop and move on. After all, what is there to keep them here?
This 'chasing the scraps' mentality has been in evidence many times before. I recall the Maple Leaf Foods fiasco a few years ago. And of course there is the never-ending quest to build bigger and 'better' malls.
Neither of these businesses seeks to capitalize on a unique Hamilton strength. None of these ventures set the town apart - unless part-time jobs with low wages is something the city wishes to promote.
A city's ability to prosper and grow, to create new wealth, is directly proportional to its ability to uniquely satisfy a demand or create a new one.
When we chase insubstantial opportunities for which Hamilton has no particular ability to deliver, we are merely shifting money from one place to another, or worse still - as is the case with a casino - taking money away from the causes to which it is better suited.
What Hamilton needs to prosper is real wealth creation - something new, something unique.
One of the reasons steel built this city is because of Hamilton's unique combination of water access and multi-modal transportation. The reason Hamilton is now a centre of excellence for health research is because of the unique concentration of superior facilities and bright minds at McMaster.
Unless Hamilton seeks to set itself apart with its adoption of a casino, i.e. to create a mini-Vegas, or some other form of unique adaptation, then it will be lumbered with just another casino. Just as Jackson Square soon became just another mall.
In the end, when it comes to building a successful, sustainable city, there is nothing new to be gained from nothing new.
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