I had the opportunity to talk about the city proposal to offer a downtown grocery store incentive with Bill Kelly yesterday morning on AM 900 CHML. Here's a transcript of the interview.
Bill Kelly, CHML (BK): Interesting reading - well, it's always interesting in Raise the Hammer, you can always find at Raise the Hammer, raisethehammer.org, of course, is the website. And the headline in the most recent edition from Ryan McGreal, "Supermarket Debate Shows Council's Unwillingness to Follow Vision". And council - this is something that Ryan has written in this blog: "Council generally sets sensible - if not particularly ambitious - targets for urban revitalization, but when it comes time to implement plans that will actually achieve those targets, Councillors can't muster up the courage to act." A rather pointed criticism, and judging from the number of likes on the website, obviously a number of people agree with that. Ryan McGreal from Raise the Hammer joins us on the Bill Kelly Show to talk about this. Ryan, good to have you on, thanks for the time today.
Ryan McGreal, Raise the Hammer (RM): Good morning, Bill. Always glad.
BK: You were at the meeting and you were an observer, as I've talked to a couple of other people who attended that, and obviously you seem kind of frustrated by the way the process evolved.
RM: Sure. Well, I wasn't actually at the meeting but I did watch it on their livestream.
RM: I guess what's frustrating for me, you know, we have a target of increasing our downtown people and jobs per hectare from 200, which is where it is now, to 250 per hectare. And, you know, that's not a particularly ambitious target, but it would definitely help. So staff go out and they prepare actual things that they can implement that will get us to that point, and then Council gets cold feet and says, No, we don't want to - we know we need to do more, but I don't know if we are prepared to do this.
BK: Interestingly enough, and you pointed this out a couple of times in your column in Raise the Hammer, that target, that modest target that you're talking about, it Council's own target.
RM: Yeah, Council set that target. And, you know, I believe it's part of the Official Plan, which is still in draft form because it's at the Ontario Municipal Board, but it's certainly - I mean, that's our target for the Downtown Plan. And, you know, so Council says to staff, Okay, we want you to aim for this target, and then staff comes back and says, Okay, what we're experiencing, what we're hearing from people who are looking to move downtown, from developers who are looking to build condos, we've got this, you know, this sort of two square kilometre area where there's no full-service grocery store. That's a big problem because it's deterring people from wanting to live down there, and that's deterring developers from wanting to put new condos and new developments there. And these, by the way, are developers who are actually doing their darnedest to build downtown - the people at Herkimer and Bay, Core Lofts - you know, it's people who are building right around the periphery of the downtown core, and what they're hearing consistently, and the report that staff prepared includes their letters as an appendix.
BK: Yeah, that's an interesting point, isn't it, Ryan, because the people that sent letters in, they've got skin in the game. In other words, these aren't people that say, Well, if you do this I might throw some money, they've already put some investment into downtown, many of them anyway.
RM: Absolutely, yeah, so these are the people who -
BK: These are the Rudi Spallaccis and others that have already, you know, built condo projects or multi-residential housing projects already downtown.
RM: Exactly. And so if they're telling us, Look, we're having a really hard time selling this without a grocery store, I think we need to listen to that. And certainly, the reason why staff prepared this particular plan was, you know, again, they were directed by Council, Okay, that seems like a good idea, put together a proposal and bring it to us. And so what staff were asking for was Council to approve this in principle. So they weren't asking them to write, you know, to allocate any money, all they were saying is, Give us permission to go out and put out a request for proposals. Let's find out what people bring in. You know, we have a list of eligibility criteria, we're going to evaluate whatever comes in, and then, if you decide, you can decide to approve one of these proposals that comes in. But again, there's no commitment of money, and even when they commit it, this is money that's already been approved in the 2012 budget. This is coming out of the block capital plan, so this is money that we've already allocated. We just have to, sort of, you know, pull the trigger on spending it.
BK: Ryan McGreal from Raise the Hammer is with us. Now, listeners will know that I had some reticence about supporting this idea initially, too, because at first blush, it seemed as if they were talking about a straight $650,000 grant. But apparently staff made some clarifications on that at the meeting that you watched, and they've actually massaged this a little bit, haven't they?
RM: Oh, exactly. What I really like about this is that they've set it up in such a way that it allows the maximum opportunity for the free market to come up with a workable business plan, it insulates the city from, kind of, being left holding the bag if someone - you know, you're not going to get a fly-by-night operation that comes in. The six hundred and fifty grand is not enough to take advantage of if you're just looking to take the money and run. But it's a forgivable loan, you know, which works out to a grant, but business has to stay in place for five years. And so essentially what it's doing is it's an incentive for somebody to make a long-term commitment to downtown.
BK: And as you say, it's a loan that has to be paid back unless, of course, after a five year period the business is still in place. But as Glen Norton, the staff individual who has been leading the charge on this initiative, told the Councillors, within five years this thing is going to more than pay for itself. So in other words, you're going to get more than that back from the development that's supposed to follow as a result of this.
RM: Well, sure. And even Councillor Powers shared an anecdote during the meeting. When he was living in Ottawa, he was living in an area that was a bit economically depressed and there wasn't a lot going on. And they brought in a grocery store, and within a few years there were new condos popping up all around. So I would be very surprised if we implemented this, and if we get a successful bid, if this didn't actually succeed in bringing a net increase in condo developments downtown, which is going to increase the city's tax revenue.
BK: Now, one of the things as I read your column today - and as I say, Ryan, I wasn't able to watch the streaming of the meeting, I was really just going by reports that I've heard about it - what I found troubling, frankly, there's this issue itself, which was obviously the focus of the discussion of this meeting, about, you know, whether or not to go forward with the this, with the request and see who's interested out there - in other words, run it up the flagpole. And I can understand, because you can always make the argument with some councillors, Well, we're doing our due diligence to make sure that we spend the money properly, and that's justifiable, I guess, to a point. But the tenor of the conversation as you characterized it seemed to kind of go into, Well, we're not even sure if we want to put any more money into downtown. That's a little more troubling than the general conversation about whether or not this is a good project or now. It's, Yeah, we know we need to do more, but we don't think we want to. That's a little bothersome, isn't it?
RM: Sure, yeah, it's -
BK: They didn't all say that. I don't want to mischaracterize this, they didn't all say that. But enough of them that I was concerned about it.
RM: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, you know, Councillor Duvall said, "I understand the need. I want the downtown to thrive and grow. We need that, we have to change the landscape downtown, both physically and financially, but I'm on the fence right now about this. It's a lot of money." So it's like, We need to do more, we need to do more than we're doing, but I don't know if we want to do any more than we're doing. So that's a bit of a frustrating perspective to take if you've decided that your goal is, kind of, a transformative change in the density of people and jobs in an area, and then you are afraid to do anything that will actually increase things beyond what it is today, you're never going to achieve your objective.
BK: What kind of message does that send to somebody like you, who's been an advocate for that kind of change?
RM: Well, it makes me wonder whether Council really understands just how vitally important it is for the city to get its downtown firing on all cylinders. I mean, every successful downtown - every successful city, you know, with a broad, diverse job base and good financials, has a vibrant, well-functioning downtown. And Hamilton is no different. We're at the point now where the projects that Council put in place in the past having success, you know, we're seeing over the past ten years the kind of slow, bootstrapping revitalization of the downtown. But it's not happening fast enough, and the downtown is still underperforming compared to its potential. And so we need to do more. We need to figure out what those final bottlenecks and roadblocks are and get past them. And one of the big ones is the lack of a full-service supermarket. That's been identified over and over again. It's in, you know, all of the city - you know, the city's own policies. It's in the Downtown Hamilton Secondary Plan, it's in the Urban Hamilton Growth Plan, It's in the 2010-2015 Economic Development Strategy. And so we've identified and identified that this is something we need to fix. This is not a huge amount of money, there's no risk to putting out an RFP - why are we so afraid to take this to the next step?
BK: Well, isn't this right into the realm of, you know, talking the talk but not walking the walk?
BK: Because, as you say, the policies are already there, but the policies mean nothing if they don't act upon them.
RM: Well, sure. And that's, you know, as a city, we're very good at setting good, progressive visions and policy goals and targets, whether it's for downtown revitalization, whether it's for transit, whether it's for walkability or cycling. But then, when it comes to actually implementing these things, we back away. And then we scratch our heads and wonder why we're not seeing a big change from the status quo.
BK: Why do you think that's happening?
RM: I think fear is part of it. I mean, you know its a bit of a step into the unknown. What if it doesn't work? What if we look like idiots? I think that's - there's a natural propensity not to want to take risks when you're in a political position. But I think we need and deserve more and better from our Councillors. They have to be willing to make a gamble if it looks like a good gamble and if staff have done their research and done their homework and said, Look, this, we believe, is a pretty safe bet. You know, it doesn't expose us, we don't have to pay any money unless we get the delivery of what we're looking for. I don't understand why Council is so afraid to move. There's no real risk here.
BK: Isn't that what leadership's all about, though?
BK: It's taking risks. And you know, if everybody, Ryan - and you've been following what's going on in municipal politics - really, you can apply this to any level of politics - if you're looking for a 100% guarantee on everything, nothing would ever get done.
RM: No, absolutely not. And the cities that we admire the most are the places that have taken some gambles. And not everything has paid off. But if they do something and it doesn't work, they learn the lesson and they move on. In Hamilton, if we do something and it doesn't work, the lesson we seem to learn is: You shouldn't ever try to do anything. And that's the wrong lesson. It's stopping us from being a truly ambitious city.
BK: The thing, as I read your column, and I've talked to some other people, of course, that were attending that meeting and watching the meeting as well, there used to be that sort of, that initiative going on. And I'll, just from a historical perspective, go back to when the city was amalgamated 12 years ago. And there was a real concern then, that, well, the inner core's going to get, you know, left out of all this thing because of the rural councillors. But amazingly enough, and I sat on that City Council, the rural councillors were some of the strongest advocates for Hamilton's downtown. Murray Ferguson, the Ancaster Councillor, Lloyd Ferguson's brother, at the time, was on council, and he was a tremendous advocate for downtown, and for investing and revitalization of downtown. As were the Flamborough councillors. And there were initiatives like the business tax reduction program and other programs to try to help downtown businesses, and Council supported that. I'm getting the sense that the will's not there to do it now.
RM: And a smart suburban or rural representative is going to recognize that a dynamic downtown drives the entire region. We can't afford suburbs if we don't have an economically powerful downtown to generate the excess wealth to pay for that stuff. You know, for the quality of life we want across the city, we need downtown to be - and the other thing that I think is important to remember is that even now, even underperforming as it is, downtown is still the single biggest employment cluster in the city. 38,000 people are working in the core right now.
BK: And growing.
RM: And growing. And so part of it is, maybe some constituents feel that downtown is sort of a lost cause, and why should we waste any more money on it. And that's unfortunate, because it's inaccurate. It doesn't capture how economically vital downtown is right now, and how much more it could be if we could just get it over that hump.
BK: But every time we bring this topic up, Ryan, I'll still get calls like that. You know, Oh, it's a washout. Oh, the crime's too high. Oh, it's too dirty. They haven't been downtown. It's not perfect, it's not where it needs to be, but it's a darn sight better than it was five, ten years ago.
RM: Absolutely, oh, absolutely. I've lived in and around the downtown core for almost my entire time in Hamilton and I've been really, really impressed with just how much better things have gotten. And certainly, the actions that Council has made in the past, and the ones that they were talking about at this meeting, have had considerable success in getting new investment downtown, getting businesses to move back. One of the things that really excited me this week is that a developer is looking at putting a new three-storey building on James North.
RM: So, 10-12 years ago, people were writing James off, right? Forget about it, business is never coming back. And then, you know, they started that bootstrapping process of bringing value back in. Luckily, the street had a very intact existing streetwall of old buildings, you know, buildings that you could buy for cheap, you renovate, you get a store on the front, you get some people living upstairs, and the place starts to generate value and it starts to bring momentum. You have more people on the street, more businesses are getting attracted. Now, property values have risen to the point where somebody who's been sitting on a vacant lot for the past 10 or 12 years is now saying, You know what? I want to build a new building here. That's what we need.
BK: You know, he's following the parade, because of the work that's gone on on James Street. And the word is "catalyst", of course, and we've seen that start to happen. And a lot of it has been generated within the private sector, but that doesn't mean that the public sector can't get involved and at least act as a catalyst for some of this stuff, which I think is what they're doing. I mean, you know, the worst case scenario, I guess, that could develop here, Ryan, is Council tells staff, Go ahead and issue the RFP, if nobody answers it or it doesn't work out, at least they can say, Look, we tried. But in the absence of that, you're always going to be asking, well, what if?
RM: Right. I mean, some people are saying it's not enough money. Maybe it's not, but we're not going to know until we put out the RFP. And it doesn't cost us anything to put out the RFP, so why wouldn't we do it?
BK: Which is exactly the point. In other words, the request for proposals will engender a response. In other words, the people from the food industry, the grocery industry, may say, You know what, that's nothing. That's not going to get anything done. But you won't know that until we go to the next step. What - I got a few seconds left here, what do you think's going to happen here?
RM: I hope that, you know, Council has kind of pushed it back to staff. Staff are going to tweak it and massage it a little bit more, I presume. I hope that, after this initial contact with the plan, that the Councillors will have a chance to sit down and think about it, and turn off their amygdala and actually take a straightforward, objective look at this rather than a fear-based look. And I hope they'll come back and decide that this is an idea that has merit.
BK: It's easy to score political points with your constituents to say, I said no and I'm holding the line on taxes, but you've got to share some vision for trying to build this community, don't you?
RM: Right. And the other thing is, the money is already budgeted. It's not like they're asking council to find new money to pay for this. It's coming out of a fund that's already in the approved 2012 budget.
BK: Read it on raisethehammer.org. Ryan McGreal, of course, from Raise the Hammer, Ryan, thanks as always. Good to have you with us again.
RM: Same with you. Thanks a lot.
BK: Take care.
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