Accidental Activist

How Will They Like Our City?

Hamilton should start thinking about how to attract tourists. When we do, we could do worse than take a few lessons from Quebec.

By Ben Bull
Published September 09, 2009

"'Ow do you like my citay?"

The bloke was tilting his head and methodically stroking his ponytail. He had flowers in his hair. Yes, flowers. In his hair.

"We like Quebec City very much!" I replied before scurrying up the stairs.

I'm not used to talking to men with flowers in their hair.

Back on our B&B sofa my wife and I uncorked a bottle of corner store bought Beaujolais and reflected on what we'd seen and done that day: a gay pride drag show, lunch on the Rue Ste-ursule, shopping on Ste-Jean, an upper town walking tour, ride in the funiculair, dinner in the old port and a stroll through the Plains of Abraham...

We were knackered.

"Thank God we skipped the museums!" said my wife, glugging down a glass.

It was my second trip to Quebec, and Susie's first, and she loved it. "This is like the best place ever!" she enthused, clinking my glass and waggling her foot under my nose - my wife's non-verbal request for a foot rub.

I wasn't surprised she needed a massage. Quebec is a tiring city. There is so much to do within a small walking radius, you can't help but cram a lot in.

Not like these other tourist traps which require itineraries, shuttle buses, subways and, you know - planning. In Quebec you just get out your little map and off you trot.

What Makes a City Unique?

Susie and I lived in the Hammer for six years. We think fondly of our time there, but we rarely go back. We're tourists now and, well - what is there to see?

As we were weaving through the thousands of out-of-towners crowding the Quebec hotel lobbies, restaurants and downtown squares, we asked ourselves why Hamilton was not a more popular recreation spot, and whether, with a little tinkering, it could be.

We started by asking the essential tourism question: What makes the town unique?

Hamilton has a lot to set itself apart. Sure, it wasn't the landing place for General Wolfe and his band of Brits and it doesn't have any 17th century barricades - but it does have a lot of cool history.

What was all that about the Stelco strike in '46? And where did they make the steel for the tanks during the war? And what are all these gems in the downtown with ghost signs plastered along the sides? Aren't the old GWR rail yards still around? Any old trains? Hamilton used to be a national railway hub; surely they could make something of that? And what about the port - did anything happen there? Wasn't there a bridge collapse on the Desjardin Canal?

Some of Hamilton's history is alive for us to see - Dundurn Castle is impressive and unique - but what about all the other historic homes? If there's one thing Hamilton has in abundance, its historical architecture.

The Imperial Cotton Center is probably worth a visit; the Botanical Gardens too. But what else can we offer up the curious newcomer?

How about a fun trip up the escarpment to see some of those long-forgotten historic homes, and to check out the infamous Hamilton skyline?

As a tourist I want to see what makes the town unique. I want to do something different. I also want a lot of choice. A tour of a steel mill would be great, as would a downtown walking tour. Another waterfront destination - railway museum? port display? - would be nice.

Easy to Visit

Of course, being a tourist is not just about things to see and do. You have to make your town an easy place to visit.

If I'm taking a downtown walking tour, for instance - where are all the plaques, and the open houses? What's with all these roads? If you think I'm pulling my kids across that intersection, think again!

How about taking a tip from Quebec and pedestrianizing the main streets during the summer? We could create a public plaza at the same time.

And what's with all the social agencies crowding out the core? Sure, these facilities are important - but really, are halfway houses and hotels ever going to be compatible?

Then there's the transit. Is the HSR geared for tourists? If your town isn't easy to get around, people won't come back. How about some light rail and the odd shuttle bus? Quebec has a free Ecolobus shuttling folks to the major sites. There's nothing like leaving your car at home.

Don't forget the Escarpment. How can we knit together the lake, the core and the mountain? There's lot to see in all three places, but I'm not taking the HSR to do it - and I'm definitely not climbing those stairs!

Mixed Reviews

My wife paid a visit to Hamilton late last year. She took the GO bus with two of her friends and went fabric shopping on Ottawa. Street They stayed at the Sheraton, lunched at Limoncello, loaded up on fabric and went for drinks downtown.

They had mixed reviews.

"The Sheraton was amazing," raved my wife, "but Limoncello was bland and the downtown is still a scary place."

Overall they found Hamilton easy enough to get to ("the GO bus was fine but a train would have been nice") and reasonably priced ("the Sheraton was a bargain").

But there wasn't much they could get to without the help of a car, and the HSR was slow. More importantly - they have no plans to come back.

You can't deny the profit pulling power of the tourism industry. Canada pulled in $74 billion in tourism dollars last year.

How much of that went to Hamilton?

How Do You Like Our City?

As the Hammer emerges from its jobs-by-the-hundreds mentality and starts to realize that jobs come in ones and twos, perhaps the city can start taking a serious look at tourism as an 'industry'. When we do, we could do worse than take a few lessons from Quebec.

Back on my B&B sofa, I thought about our flower-headed hosts' question: "'Ow do you like my citay?"

It says a lot.

How many Hamiltonians, I wonder, would ask a stranger the same thing? And what will it take for us to try?

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By jason (registered) | Posted September 09, 2009 at 13:33:17

as Hamilton emerges from the "jobs by the hundreds mentality"??

Yea, now we're onto 'jobs by the tens of thousands' according to our 'leaders' pushing the aerotropolis plan.

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By luke (registered) | Posted September 09, 2009 at 14:32:18

Great article.

Does anybody have an update to the Funicular Railway article linked in this story?

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted September 09, 2009 at 14:52:28

Yes. Incline railway is the way to start. It leverages Hamilton's most beautiful asset - the escarpment. And even if it fails to attract tourists, it will still be of inestimable value to local residents. For tourists or locals, it can sync well with cycling.

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By madmatt (anonymous) | Posted September 09, 2009 at 16:39:38

I'd like to see a collection of old THB railway cars and perhaps an old steam locomotive parked beside the waterfront trail to block out the current working rail yard. A few old diner cars would make an excellent restaurant or pub and would show off some of our industrial heritage. With companies like National Steelcar, CN and CP in town we should be able to swing it.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 09, 2009 at 17:26:33

How a city with our geography doesn't have restaurants with large patios overlooking the city from the brow or restaurants along the waterfront is dumbfounding. At least we have lots of lanes of mountain access roads. Who needs funiculars when you can just build more roads??

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By Director (anonymous) | Posted September 09, 2009 at 19:02:55

Jason, they aren't going to build themselves. Get hammering.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted September 09, 2009 at 22:33:49

Quebec City has very low property values, even lower than Hamilton. Therefore, while it may be a great place for tourists, it isn't doing a good job attracting people to buy homes.

A city that does a great job attracting residents is Toronto. Curiously enough, within Ontario, Toronto gives home buyers the best deal on property taxes. Whereas a home buyer in Hamilton pays $4762.80 on a $300,000 investment, Toronto only charges $2,564.40.

If Hamilton set a goal of matching Toronto's tax rates for residential properties, this would increase homeowner's after tax return on investment, which would mean more money in their pocket. When you consider that home prices in Toronto have risen on average 2.34% (after inflation) since 1995 ( ) and 0.85% has been taken away through taxation, this leaves a real return of 1.49%.

In contrast, if you assume that Hamilton home values rise as much as Toronto, which is doubtful, this would still mean that homeowners earn a return on investment of only 0.75% (2.35%-1.588%), only HALF as much as Toronto homeowners.

Therefore, if Hamilton wants to increase it's attractiveness to investors, which is anyone who buys a house, how can it do this if it only gives returns on investment, half that of Toronto? Most people don't want to lose money, yet that is what they face if they choose to buy in Hamilton, rather than Toronto.

I understand most people don't like numbers and would rather talk about big ideas to transform Hamilton, but numbers matter. People invest based on numbers and more importantly, banks loan money based on numbers. If Hamilton starts playing the game, increases investor's ROI, this will guarantee more investment and higher property values for all Hamilton homeowners.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 10, 2009 at 09:01:03

Right...let's do what Toronto does. Turn away artists and up and comers to the surrounding cities.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 10, 2009 at 09:58:12

yea we all know how affordable Toronto is.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 10, 2009 at 10:21:27

While Toronto is not as affordable as Hamilton, it's wages are generally higher than 'cheaper' cities (at least for the moderate to high income jobs). For sure there is a dearth of affordable housing, and many areas are ghettos of either rich or poor, but A Smith's point about rising house values is valid.

When I lived in Hamilton I barely broke even. My 6 year 'investment' didn't pay off. This was a huge consideration for me and my family when we chose to relocate back to TO. Quite simply, all other things considered, we couldn't afford to stay in the Hammer.

While we were living there the Toronto house we'd left behind almost doubled in value (it was in the Pape/Danforth area).

I have often thought that municipal politicians should look at property value changes as a yard stick of their success. After all, their job should be to increase the property values of city residents. More well paying jobs, a more livable city, all these factors will force house values to rise - a good thing for any city. Obviously there should be a balance, so that affordable housing is available, but in terms of the house value discussion here, the trend for a successful city should be up.

Interesting point about Quebec City not being 'livable'. While we were there we learned that over 90% of Quebec City's population resides outside of the downtown area, in what is apparently mostly sprawl neighbourhoods. Quebec appears to be a tale of two cities in this regard: very visitable and geared for tourists on the one hand, and not all that livable on the other.

I don't want to suggest in any way that a city should be developed to cater for tourists alone (or to pander to any one industry). The needs of the residents should always come first. Ideally, what works for one stakeholder/target consumer will work for the other too.



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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 10, 2009 at 10:49:59

When I lived in Hamilton I barely broke even. My 6 year 'investment' didn't pay off. This was a huge consideration for me and my family when we chose to relocate back to TO. Quite simply, all other things considered, we couldn't afford to stay in the Hammer.

It seems the main problem was that you couldn't find employment in Hamilton in your line of work and had to commute, adding to your costs and travel time.

Making it still cheaper to buy a house in Hamilton isn't going to change that - it's already very cheap to buy a house in Hamilton, even with the higher tax rate. That alone is not going to bring jobs - and certainly not jobs in knowledge industries.

(In any case, I've argued all along that cities charge whatever tax rate will bring in enough money to run the city's affairs. Cities with higher property values can afford to charge lower rates. Across the GTA, tax rates varies inversely with property values and the result is that actual property taxes paid are fairly consistent.)

While we were living there the Toronto house we'd left behind almost doubled in value (it was in the Pape/Danforth area).

In Hamilton as in Toronto, it all depends on the area. I live in southwest Hamilton and our house has increased in value some two-and-a-half times since 2001 - even taking into account the recent housing slump.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 10, 2009 at 11:19:06

"It seems the main problem was that you couldn't find employment in Hamilton in your line of work and had to commute, adding to your costs and travel time."

Well let's be honest - there were a lot of problems! But one pivotal moment for us was learning what our TO house was worth, and chatting with a Gage Park neighbour who was about to lose money on the sale of his house. For the sake of our future we had to get out.

For sure property values are tied to the type of neighbourhood, but the neighbourhood values are also affected by the town as a whole. A bankrupt, un-safe, 'unlivable' town will always drag down the values of the neighbourhoods that are tied to it. I expect the areas that have done well in Hamilton are the usual suspects - the well fed middle class ghettos around Westdale, Aberdeen Ave and the outlying well to do suburbs. But in Toronto even the mixed neighbourhoods continue to do well.

I would not underestimate a. the importance of house value trends in people's purchasing decisions and b. the affect of the town as a whole on all property values.

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted September 12, 2009 at 08:54:00

Southwest Hamilton property values have done nothing but gone up the past 15 years. A friend of mine's house value went up more than 2X in the past 10 years, same story with all the houses in the area.

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted September 12, 2009 at 09:03:22

After my last post, I realized the thread is about tourism. Yet again, ASmith was successful at hijacking the thread and getting everyone defensive about their home prices.

How can Hamilton increase its tourism value? I think they are doing a fantastic job down at the waterfront. It represents much progress from what was there only a few years ago.

We had out-of-province visitors and they really enjoyed the trolley tour. The website is great
I was impressed with the trolley map and the amount of waterfront trail that is walkable and cycle-able. Over 8km in one direction I believe.

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted September 12, 2009 at 10:20:01

Locke St festival is today (Sept 12) starting at 10am. Last year the street was packed in the early afternoon... couldn't see a patch of empty pavement anywhere. We have to make Hamilton tourist friendly by taking advantage of what we already have and expand as we go.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 12, 2009 at 18:27:51

We need WAY more street festivals like this. And for the entire weekend, not just one day. I realize closing roads for fun events in Hamilton is like calling the earth flat, but people love evidenced by the massive crowds. It's a shame that Locke only has this event once in an entire year. I came down with a brutal flu and am home sick, unable to attend. Oh well, I can always go next year...or I can go to Toronto next weekend.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 14, 2009 at 09:22:35

The festival was fantastic - even better than last year. Of course, I forgot to bring my camera with me, but here's a photo of the 2008 festival:

If anything, last Saturday was even more jam-packed.

Note: Picks and Sticks - - is fast becoming one of the most essential community hubs on the street, tying a whole new generation of kids into the rich history of local music in Hamilton.

They had a strong presence at the festival, between the awesome live performances by young students taking music lessons there (my favourite was Atomic Taco, supported by the mighty Jack Pedlar) and the acts playing the West Town stage by bands connected to the shop. My eyes are still dazzled from the sun glinting off the singer's steel resonator guitar when the Gord Lewis Quarted played late Saturday afternoon.

Locke Street and Kirkendall Neighbourhood are blessed to have such a passionate, talent-filled organization in our midst.

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