The best way to change Hamilton's image is to change Hamilton's reality. It's time to stop saying, "I love Hamilton" and start meaning it.
By Ben Bull
Published February 19, 2005
The first time I saw the smokestacks of Hamilton I knew one thing for certain: I wouldn't be going there in a hurry.
Like many people my first view was from the bridge. It was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. I was driving to Niagara Falls with my wife and kids. It was a beautiful July day and our spirits were high.
The radio was blaring inside the mini-van and the kids were singing along to some teen pop crap. My wife was turning upside down trying to read the map and I was enjoying the view. But then we hit the Skyway, and reached the crest of the bridge.
When we saw the belching smokestacks and filthy slag heaps dead ahead, the singing stopped, and we all just stared.
I had never seen anything like it. I come from the north of England where the word 'grim' gets it's meaning, but this view of Hamilton was without doubt the most depressing I had ever seen. I thought of the enormous concrete power station chimneys along the M1 motorway in Sheffield, the menacing outline of the ICI Chemical works on the River Tees in Middlesborough, and the boarded up downtowns of Darlington and Stockdale. These were grim sights indeed. But none of them compared to the one before me right now.
As we hit the bottom the Steelworks were framed in the passenger side window. I searched for some chink of light poking through the filthy portrait to redeem the view. But there was nothing.
"How can people live there?" I wondered out loud.
"It's horrible," was all my wife could say.
I'm sure my experience is not unique. Last year the Green Berets put together a show about Hamilton's image. As part of the preparation I questioned about 20 friends and colleagues on their impressions of Hamilton. Their responses were brutally honest and, unfortunately, confirmed my suspicions about how people think we look from "the outside."
One respondent wrote:
"The first impression isn't good...all the industrial stuff along the bay...a smell in the air...dirty and cold looking...polluted...lots of smoke stacks."
When asked what thoughts Hamilton conjures up in the minds of Torontonians, the answers were similarly grave:
"Hamilton is a dump...a poor cousin."
"It's hard to find anything exciting about Hamilton."
Some responses were even more depressing:
"(Hamilton is) Stinky and run down...populated by pig farmers."
And even this:
"(The image of Hamilton is)...men with mullets who don't want to work...Women with mullets who don't want to work...Welfare welfare welfare."
Of course this little survey was wholly unscientific. StatsCan would probably rate it accurate 19 times out of a 1,000,000 plus or minus 500%. But for me at least, it gave me pause for thought.
How much does our image matter? I wondered. I mean, who cares if we don't look too hot to outsiders? It's not like our prosperity is tied to this in any way - Is it?
During my research into the revitalization taking place in other cities I came upon an image survey - link here - that was carried out by my home town of Leeds, in England. It states:
Numerous cities across Europe and indeed the UK, are recognizing the benefits of city image marketing...those that have pioneered such thinking have been acutely aware for sometime of the role city image marketing plays in investment decisions that impact on the long-term regeneration of our cities.
I contacted the Leeds Development Department. Manager David Baggely sent me an e-mail outlining his thoughts on the importance of image and image marketing.
"The City Image study ... shows that we need to 'turn up the volume' if we are to realise our ambitions to raise the profile of Leeds on the European stage."
Leeds - and many other towns Raise The Hammer will be looking at over the next few issues - is certainly worth a look at when it comes to understanding what it takes to turn a town around. From a rapid decline which saw the city lose 20 percent of their manufacturing jobs from 1951 to 1972, and left the downtown in a depressing and dilapidated state similar to Hamilton's, Leeds has recently been voted Visitor City of the Year by the 2004 Good Britain Guide and Best City for Business. They have turned themselves around.
Leeds Main Street – Briggate, 1970. Leeds was a drab place to live, with no image worth marketing.
The same street today. Leeds has brought the life back into their downtown and their neighbourhoods. An image marketing campaign is underway.
It appeared to me that Leeds' efforts to market itself were a significant factor in this revitalization. But I wasn't so sure. I wondered - is it just simple marketing that makes the difference? Can we turn Hamilton around with a bit of research, a few fancy pictures and some neat slogans?
The recent failure of Reach, Dream, Rise, Shine to create any lasting momentum would suggest otherwise. And while the starry eyed "I love Hamilton" campaign may have been a useful first step in the effort to create much-needed positive energy, it hasn't exactly set the town alight.
So what have we missed? Where have we gone wrong in our efforts to promote a positive image?
I got what might be the answer to this question in some of the additional responses to my image questionnaire. In answer to the question, "How important do you think a town's image is, in attracting outside investment and tourism?"
A running theme emerged:
"In order to improve your image, you have to improve your reality."
"Image is important, but you have to make Hamilton a place people would want to live before it becomes attractive to investment and tourism."
These comments were echoed by ex-Leader of Leeds City Council George Mudie, when I spoke with him about his town's revitalization, "Politically and socially you can't ignore people in your city. This affects how your city looks, and its success."
As with many aspects of urban revitalization - nothing is simple. But the idea of improving a town's image from within certainly resonates with me. Leeds did not conduct image surveys until their revitalization was well underway. And to the best of my knowledge they do not appear to have foisted any silly little slogans on their unsuspecting citizens. Because for Leeds - and all successfully revitalized cities - their image reflects their reality.
What Leeds has created is a tangible improvement in the quality of life factors for all (well, most) residents. What they have obtained is a positive momentum, a very real excitement and a renewed sense of pride. And, maybe, what they have found is that it is this energy - this message carried all the way around the world by proud Leodians - that sells the city more than anything else.
It's easy to say 'I Love Hamilton' when you desperately need to feel better about your reality. But, as you dig deep again to pay your skyrocketing property taxes, settle down for your intolerably long commute, or struggle to have just a bit more fun in the Hammer - it's hard to mean it.
When I finally did make it into Hamilton I took the 403. What a difference a road makes. I loved Cootes, I loved the old buildings in the downtown, and I loved the down to earth feel of the place. I believe that Hamilton has a huge potential to improve its reality. I just hope we begin to understand that it is this - more than anything else - that will turn the town around.
It's time to stop saying 'I love Hamilton', and start meaning it.
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