Today's Spectator reports a breakthrough in the on-again, off-again proposal to establish a mixed-use education and health centre downtown on the current site of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) office.
According to the latest plan, the HWDSB will sell the site to McMaster, and then rent space in a newly constructed complex. The city's public health department will also rent space.
This is certainly welcome news - HWDSB employees working downtown are better than on a suburban business park somewhere on the east mountain. To the extent that the new plan opens the building and integrates it more closely with its surroundings (e.g. in the manner of the neighbouring Art Gallery of Hamilton), that's good for downtown.
At the same time, increasing energy price volatility over the next decade or two will make this look like a better and better idea as time goes on.
It's also good to get the university and the city on closer terms. We could certainly benefit from the expertise at McMaster, but historically the city government has been reluctant to get too close (former councillor Dave Braden suggests in a 2006 interview with Maggie Hughes that this is because the city didn't want to hear a lot of flack about their unsustainable development plans).
Finally, there's the important point that lots of economic stimulus money is flowing right now, and these kinds of facilities are where we should be spending our money (as opposed to, say, highways).
That said, I don't see it as the great panacea that some have suggested. Frankly, if having the HWDSB downtown was such a great engine of revitalization, it should already be acting as such.
Even the medical research facility is generally a good thing, but medical research as a field doesn't have a great multiplier effect.
For one thing, public research institutions don't pay property tax! Beyond that, health care is not a for-profit industry in Canada (for which I'm certainly grateful), so innovative spinoff business opportunities are somewhat limited.
As always, what will get downtown all the way around the corner is a number of small and medium sized initiatives and changes, a laudable goal toward which this plan, if successful, will certainly contribute.
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