Will we have two more years of the current casino debate, or can we achieve better civic engagement for Hamilton?
By Joey Coleman
Published February 21, 2013
Once again, Hamilton's civic political culture is at a crossroads - and again we're posed to choose none of the roads leading away from our current point, preferring instead to take the bumpiest road to the nearest cliff.
We've seen it before with the stadium debate, area rating (which took over a decade to solve) and ward boundaries, and we are on the verge of doing so again with the casino debate.
History doesn't have to repeat itself entirely.
The casino debate sparked what I believe to be the greatest moment of civic engagement to occur in City Hall - the casino town halls (or in City Hall-speak "information sessions").
Hamilton City Hall (Image Credit: Joanna St. Jacques)
We can take the lessons learned from them to clasp some victory out of the defeat that has become of this debate for both sides.
Hamilton City Council is in election mode, which means most major difficult decisions will be put off until after the October 2014 municipal vote.
The casino issue is the second major item to be punted past 2014, with Ward Boundary Review being the first.
Council reached a "compromise motion" last week that instructs Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp (OLG) to consider bids for the Flamborough location only.
If (when) Flamborough is declared a non-viable location, then Council will consider all other locations. This is expected to occur in March 2015.
The past week has shown what we can expect of the next two years: needless bitter fighting among factions in preparation for the inevitable 2015 downtown casino debate.
Last week, we witnessed an engaged citizen telling a former mayor to "go %$#% yourself", a current city councillor accuse opponents of acting like communists, and a lot of pointless bickering instead of conversation or productive debate.
Now we have an integrity commissioner complaint against a city councillor, Ward Two Councillor Jason Farr, for allegedly misrepresenting the position of Global Spectrum/Live Nation in his February 14 press conference.
Even Councillor Terry Whitehead, the leading voice on Council of the Yes-Downtown-Casino side is publicly stating this integrity complaint is frivolous.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but we can be fairly sure it won't be good.
It's not in just the "usual suspect" locations such as Twitter that this conversation has degraded into a farcical exchange of insults. Look at this reddit thread - and that's just the discussion.
What about our downtown? What does the stagnation of the casino debate mean for it? I don't know the answer, but my fear is that the uncertainty will discourage some investment and growth.
There could be people who want to live across from a casino, but I don't know anyone who does. (The same can be said about Copps Coliseum.)
Until we know if there will be a downtown casino and where it may be located, are we taking the risk of discouraging condo development or intensification?
On the flip side, what about the private investors who believe they can benefit from a casino?
Several downtown restaurants are pro-casino, with the RockHammer group planning to provide restaurant vouchers as part of its loyalty program and to design the casino entertainment complex to be open to the street.
Does the stagnation of this debate and uncertainty about the future of our core lead to decreased investment downtown? Does it discourage people from moving downtown - both those seeking and avoiding a casino?
Much like if there will be a downtown casino, we just don't know the answers.
It doesn't have to be this way. We held two casino town halls in Hamilton, both of which were very informative, respectful, and insightful.
For a fleeting moment, it appeared that Hamilton had finally arrived on the verge of two-way dialogue and the City sought to engage citizens as equals. Maybe that moment was a watershed and the venomous comments of the best week are merely the last gasp of incivility?
Both sides had an opportunity to be heard, those who had not already formed a firm opinion heard from experts on both sides of the issue, and everyone left the night feeling they had an opportunity to engage meaningfully with their civic government.
Can we do another successful series of town halls? I say yes.
People in Council Chambers (Image Credit: Joanna St. Jacques)
There are many topics that need to be covered in our city. I'm going to suggest one as both timely and with strong arguments on both sides: two-way vs. one-way streets.
Let's put together an expert panel on both sides of the issue, hold another town hall, and improve upon the new interactive formats we used during the casino debate to make civic engagement a regular part of our city hall culture.
With election 2014 underway, it's time to raise above the rhetoric we've seen on the casino and ask the big question: What is the vision for Hamilton and how do we achieve it?
I propose better civic engagement, leading to a better informed citizenry that ultimately produces a 2014 election based on issues and not polarized by a singular focus on the casino debate.
What do you think? What is the big question that we need to answer in #HamOnt?
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