Special Report: Education

Unanswered Questions on Downtown McMaster, School Board Plan

Our Councillors and Trustees owe us some answers on a staggeringly expensive proposal that will demolish an iconic building and ferry the school board out of the downtown core.

By Dan Jelly
Published January 27, 2012

this article has been updated

If all goes according to the current McMaster/HWDSB plan for downtown, by this time in 2015 the following will have happened:

After giving the land at 100 Main West to the board in the 1960s so they would stay downtown, by contributing $20 million to this project we will effectively be buying it back at a giant premium and giving it to McMaster. That's not precisely how they'll say it's happening, but the net result is the same.

Stings a little, doesn't it?

Board of Education Building, 100 Main Street West (RTH file photo)
Board of Education Building, 100 Main Street West (RTH file photo)

To be fair, it's not all bad news. McMaster will have a shiny new downtown campus and the Board of Education will be tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, safe from the big bad downtown of the City they're employed to serve. The City's Public Health department will finally be consolidated under one roof and apparently benefitting from some level of synergy with McMaster.

That's just about where the good news ends.

It's time to start asking some questions. You may have your own, but here are mine:

Our Councillors and Trustees owe us some answers. The full cost of this project, in terms of capital, built assets and long-term operating commitments is staggering and we have no way of quantifying the benefit.

In January of 2009, at the Mayor's economic summit, Former McMaster President Dr. Peter George encouraged Council to "Be bold" when considering this and other projects like it.

I would urge them to take his advice and not blindly accept what is being put forward. It's time to be bold and fight for a better deal for taxpayers and save the Board of Ed building in the process. We can do better.


Update: This article has been updated to correct a reference to the Board of Education building at 150 Main Street. The address is 100 Main Street. RTH regrets the error and acknowledges reader "CaptainKirk" for pointing out the error in a comment. You can jump to the changed paragraph.

Dan Jelly is a life-long resident of downtown Hamilton and occasional blogger. You can visit his website.

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By RenaissanceWatcher (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 09:06:18

Good article, Dan.

An additional question:

Rather than the City of Hamilton leasing 63,000 sq. ft. of space at the Robert Thomson Building and subletting 52,000 sq. ft. of it to the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board, has the School Board considered temporarily moving into one or two of the several schools it is poised to close until its new headquarters (or refurbished headquarters if it stayed at the existing site) are ready?

Comment edited by RenaissanceWatcher on 2012-01-27 09:14:39

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 09:35:12

Seems to me the school board is not afraid of throwing its weight around with the city and making demands (neither is Mac for that matter).

The city just seems to capitulate time and time again...

It's funny how the city considers bringing Mac downtown "city building" and "good for everyone" even though it costs a substantial amount of money - but permitting the Pearl Company to operate in violation of present zoning (which I believe could be easily remedied by the city at no additional cost) is the end of the world and worthy of litigation.

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By CCR (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 09:41:11

Why is HWDSB moving out of downtown? And why is the city just discounting the 300 jobs that are leaving downtown? Two very troubling questions.

The answer is the employees want a large site with free and convenient parking after they drive to work, that's all. And these sites just don't exist downtown. Which also clearly shows you human (car) nature and that our city isn't ready (congested enough at major attraction points) yet for LRT.

You can't just convince a big office tenant in the private sector to re-locate to downtown Hamilton. Its just not that appealing a place, yet. But you do have stroke with public bodies such as the school board. I say we let Mac follow the natural ebb and flow of things and locate at Innovation Park and make the school board stay downtown. Encourage the development of the west end (MIP) and it will flow into the downtown over ten years anyway (eg. downtown Kitchener from uptown Waterloo).

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 09:58:16

Excellent article.

I really dislike this proposed deal. People realize that the city is so desperate for dt development they can sucker us into any deal. Helps explain why dt is full of fly-by-night operators and few reputable people/business development.

I don't see the econ benefit from a dt health campus. The place will be desearted in the evenings and weekends (the times that the dt needs the most activity).

Expect to see a methodone clinic located within the mac campus at some point.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 10:12:33 in reply to Comment 73373

Maybe downtown would be less desperate for development if we started developing our ample empty or underused spaces instead of continually demolishing and rebuilding the same few lots.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 10:27:27 in reply to Comment 73378

And maybe developers would have a reason to develop if the tax rates for parking lots and other less-than-productive land use in the core were higher.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 09:59:27

Great piece Dan. This deal stinks no matter from which vantage point you look at it. We need city building. Instead, we get shitty building. With apologies.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 10:14:57

Terrific piece.

Concise, to the point, and effectively thought provoking.

(Wish Mahesh could get his points across this concisely/effectively, as he has interesting views whether you agree with him or not)

I'm still baffled and ashamed at the board's abandonment of our downtown. Disgraceful really.

And as the author of this article points out, why is the city even involved in this? We, the taxpayers are getting duped, I'm afraid.



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By jason (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 10:50:53

A fantastic idea being brought before council today by Councillor Farr:

http://www.hamilton.ca/NR/rdonlyres/4BE0...

This would make far more sense than wasting tons of money on a suburban location. That Mountain land could fetch a pretty penny from a homebuilder.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:04:55 in reply to Comment 73383

Let me guess: the design for the second tower involves taking out the city hall parking lot, right?

That'll go over like a lead balloon.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2012-01-27 12:05:03

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By MattJelly (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:03:03 in reply to Comment 73383

I guess the first question I'd have is how the construction of a second tower would effect the rest of City Hall- would it displace any departments for the duration of construction, due to noise, lack of access, etc.? Is this going to add further to the City's total cost in this entire proposal?

I appreciate Jay's attempt to keep the Board of Ed downtown, but I think he's on the wrong side of Main Street on this. As a major stakeholder in the project, the City should be asking what Dan is asking: why won't the Board of Ed partner with McMaster on the downtown health campus? Why won't the Board of Ed take the same leasing deal the City is expected to accept? Why can't we consider a development that restores and incorporates the current Board of Ed into the new development?

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 14:44:12 in reply to Comment 73394

as far as I know, the footings for a new tower run south from the back entrance to city hall so the final building would be a Y-shape instead of the current V-shape.

You're right - I emailed my councillor and Judith Bishop and suggested they go back to square one and partner with Mac. I don't buy this nonsense that the province says "its too late". This is $32 million in public money being spent. It's never too late.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 11:56:38 in reply to Comment 73383

As much as I prefer this idea over the mountain location, why not just rebuild on the existing site, shared with Mac, as proposed a few years ago?

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By Buster (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 11:49:53 in reply to Comment 73383

"this would make FARR more sense" Fixed that for you!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 11:45:06 in reply to Comment 73383

Great find. I just sent an email to Councillor Farr to ask for more details on the proposal. I'll post it if I get a response.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 11:57:07

High-fives to JayFarr if this is true--nice to have a cnclr in Ward 2 willing to stick up for downtown.

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By CaptainKirk (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:07:35

What irks me most about their proposed abandonment of downtown, is that the land at 100 Main St. W. (not 150. That's the old fed bldg) was GIVEN to them so that they'd be located downtown.

If they're abononing the downtown, and breaking that promise, then they should be obligated to return that land to the city. It should not be their's to sell.

How can the HWDSB stab the city of Hamilton in the back like this? The HWDSB is accountable to us.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 13:04:01 in reply to Comment 73398

If they're abononing the downtown, and breaking that promise, then they should be obligated to return that land to the city. It should not be their's to sell.

For a variation on this theme, check out:

Fisher family -> Dundas District High School -> BOE/City of Hamilton -> Condo developers.

The land was given to the city in the '20s to build a school on with the proviso that it would forever either be used for education purposes or a park.

Apparently the final surviving Fisher went to court to prevent the sale to developers...and lost.

Proving once again that the only sure things in Life are death and taxes.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 13:07:20

Why don't they just use the dozen empty floors of the Stelco Tower?

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 13:30:21

The City - ie public money should only be involved to serve the public good.

The public good is a downtown extension of McMaster University - in the context that it is leverage to entice students and professionals to LIVE downtown - along with the day to day spending of visitors. However, there is no public good in removing an existing functional and architecturally significant building - only to be replaced by a modern version of the same. In that respect - no public money should be involved. If Mac wants only that property and they want to demolish the existing and build only there - let them make that choice with their own money - I would see that as neutral to the public good.

There is a public good for the HWDSB to be located downtown - for the same reasons as an extension of McMaster is a benefit. The HWDSB moving from downtown to the mountain is not only against the public good - it is actually harming the public good. In that respect, the City needs to act to penalize the HWDSB for the harm they are responsible for.

The only scenario that produces a net public good is for McMaster to locate downtown - to an underutilized property (ie one of the many parking lots) AND for the HWDSB to remain downtown.

This can be accomplished by a strategic investment in McMaster, and a strategic penalty to the HWDSB.

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By DanJelly (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 13:42:54

Thanks all for the constructive and supportive commentary.

I think a light also needs to be shone on the Public Health component. I made an error in my submission. Public Health will not, in fact, be under one roof after this is over, which just makes the deal even worse because we'll still have to pay for a long term lease elsewhere (presumably in the Robert Thompson building).

I like John Neary's idea of using the Stelco Tower. If public institutions are going to continue to lease space downtown, now's the time to lock in before demand increases and rates go up.

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By F.Ward Cleat (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 13:43:45

...Sir J.A MacDonald S.School is on the Board's chopping block. Why not consider that site?

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By the sad reality (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 13:52:04

No matter what downtown option is pitched the answer will always be that is less costly on the mountain. Until that reason is removed its going to be tough to get the Board to change their mind

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 14:47:19 in reply to Comment 73414

that answer isn't satisfactory since the numbers they've provided are about as legit as me doodling on a napkin. Plus, they could sell the mountain land to a home-builder. And there is always the issue of public access to a public institution. My other idea of them buying Scott Park would give them more space and be cheaper. There are plenty of options here. But a sad agenda behind the scenes driving the move to a residential neighbourhood.

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 14:13:26 in reply to Comment 73414

The sad reality is that public money will be spent to subsidize free surface parking spots for HWDSB employees.

There are more than enough properties that the HWDSB could move to that are less expensive than their current proposal.

Not to mention maybe they could just renovate their freaking existing building to suit their needs.

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 14:18:37

The one thing in this debate that I cannot wrap my head around is why nobody wants the HWDSB's existing building? Is there something fundamentally wrong with it?

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 15:25:29 in reply to Comment 73416

And - if there is something fundamentally wrong with the HWDSB's existing building - why is it better for McMaster to come in, knock it down and build something new there. The HWDSB could just do the exact same thing, less the cost of obtaining the property.

The whole scheme makes absolutely no sense.

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By convince me (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 14:24:08

I really see no evidence that its cheaper to stay or retrofit a building for the board. I'd love to see them stay but cost is a significant issue that isn't going to be easy to use as a reason to stay. I sincerely hoped that it could be done but so far it appears those efforts are not succeeding

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By mattjelly (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 14:51:52 in reply to Comment 73417

We don't know that. The Board's Committee of the Whole explored several concepts on November 5th, 2007, including a staff presentation that detailed the cost of restoring the current building, which included adding an addition and underground parking.

The staff report estimated that this option would cost $65 Million. The minutes don't have any link to the staff report, nor do they include a breakdown of that number. That could tell us what the basic restoration costs of the building itself would be- minus the underground parking and the addition. Then we could truly assess whether the building can be feasibly restored as a part of this development- the evidence you're asking for.

The report was by Daryl Sage and is referenced in these minutes as "Concept 4": http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/aboutus/meetings/...

I've been asking the board since last July to supply me with that staff report, with no luck.

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By keep up the good fight Matt (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 15:15:11

We need real information to disarm those defending the move.

@Jason. Wouldn't Scott Park go contrary to the ideal that park space be preserved in that area rather than building a parking lot over the ball diamonds as would certainly be the first order of business. Also, Is that not also in a residential area like the mountain location? $10M to start to buy back the school would also seem to be a problem. Other options seem more practical than Scott Park although it would be a giant shot in the arm to the area.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 15:28:56 in reply to Comment 73425

I wouldn't recommend or think it's a good idea to pave over any more of that site for parking. There is parking at the NE portion of the site. A future LRT station is planned out front on King, and although it's a residential area, it is also on King, good transit connections and with the Pan-Am district coming soon across the street. Not a perfect solution, but way better than the one they are suggesting. I don't think anyone would have to shell out $10 million to buy the school. It was purchased 2 years ago for $1.5mil. Current owner is just hoping to make a quick buck due to the impending stadium, hence the $8million price tag.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted January 28, 2012 at 05:26:34

The Board just doesn't want to be downtown and nothing's going to change their mind. As to why, I think that's been answered sufficiently already on this site.

In terms of the City and Mac, it's a complete disaster. However, I think the City would prefer to have something new and shiny built ~ disaster or not ~ than to let another opportunity slip through their hands.

No matter which way you spin it, it blows.

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By George (registered) | Posted January 28, 2012 at 08:22:55 in reply to Comment 73436

Perhaps we should be (if we're not already) contacting the board, and letting them know what we think about their proposed relocation.

http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/aboutus/trustees/

Comment edited by George on 2012-01-28 08:38:45

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 28, 2012 at 08:32:46 in reply to Comment 73438

this is a good idea for sure, but I'd also contact the provincial education minister. The Hamilton board doesn't seem to give a rip what the public thinks. The province will be more anxious to get involved if they get a sense from the public that gobs of public money are being spent so board employees can each have 1.5 free parking spaces and browse Limeridge Mall at lunch.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:09:47 in reply to Comment 73439

Contact the Minister, the Premier, all local MPP's, and leaders of the opposition.

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By George (registered) | Posted January 28, 2012 at 08:35:27 in reply to Comment 73439

Yes, great idea, and while I'm contacting provincial reps and officials, I will refer to the province's Places To Grow policy

https://www.placestogrow.ca/index.php?op...

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted January 28, 2012 at 10:27:33

When I was at the Open House on Wednesday night, I got into a "lively" debate with Don Hall, who manages all of the HWDSB facilities. I asked, if they had to come up to the mountain, why they didn't retrofit Crestwood. I was told that there were issues with the roof, HVAC, and asbestos. I was told the roof had been there since the 60's. I was asked what I thought it would cost to replace the roof. I said that I didn't know but thought it could be as high as a couple of million dollars, to which one of the Board reps said, "Don't you think that's a lot of money?" I said of course it was a lot of money, but it was still far less than the $31.5 million they will be spending to build a new TWO STOREY building on the Crestwood footprint. As HVAC, you have to pay for it whether you retrofit or build new. As for asbestos, you have to remediate before you tear it down or renovate. Of course, this is not to mention the fact that it appears the Board hasn't spent a dime maintaining Crestwood, or the Education Centre for that matter. Although both buildings are presently occupied, if not to capacity, this amounts to demolition by neglect but with the lights still on.

The Board wants shiny and new and tons of parking and not to be downtown. Nice vision. From our educators.

When I asked Mr. Hall how he got to the Open House he said that he drove there. I asked him how he would get here if he didn't drive. He told me that the second biggest transit terminal in Hamilton was over at Limeridge Mall. Just a few parking lots, strip malls away. He's the same guy who told me there would be 480 parking spots for 450 employees, "mostly they will not all be here at the same time." Trust is earned, not given. I'm still waiting.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 29, 2012 at 14:54:37 in reply to Comment 73442

somehow I doubt that the Limeridge Terminal sees more transit trips than McMaster or Eastgate or Mohawk College. Has anyone seen the Google trip you'd need to take from the terminal to get to this site?? I don't see any through streets from Upper Wentworth. That means every single car coming to this site will have to meander their way through the neighbourhood from Upper Wellington or Mohawk. What a waste of public money.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted January 28, 2012 at 13:53:38 in reply to Comment 73442

The Board wants shiny and new and tons of parking and not to be downtown. Nice vision. From our educators.

Bureaucratic penis envy perhaps ?

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By Steveat60 (registered) | Posted January 28, 2012 at 15:08:06

Seems to me that so much of our "news" and so many of our comments just float about without tethers to any consistent approach to fixing this place, step by step.

Why not Code Red as our tether?

On a Code Red basis, the question is less about the location of a school board as much as why all possible resources aren't in classrooms rather than a head office? Current School Board premises have space for a given number of staff. Why not let that be the max? And thus be able to stay put. Perhaps not a bad way of keeping bureaucracy doing only must-dos with all other resources going to kids in classrooms.

On a Code Red basis, the question is whether moving Mac downtown will or will not impact on inner city life spans that lag the norm and reduce the after-the-fact reliance of our poorer neighbours on hospital emergency departments.

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By Imperial (anonymous) | Posted January 28, 2012 at 17:04:49

Once again Council sits on the edge’s of their seats for a few months of action packed major institution dancing around how to spend ten of millions of dollars from the City trust, demolish multiple buildings, all the while promising ‘revitalization’ of our downtown core that seemingly only they can deliver. It’s quite the show – almost a local cultural phenomenon.
We’ve watched this dance occur so many times – and I say ‘we’ pointing at a variety parties: our Mayor, Council, city staff, business sector leaders, the few progressive developers we have checkered throughout the community pulling off projects of significant scale and a more modest neighbourhood level, the general public, but most importantly to me, my fellow creative sector partners – be you individual artist, creative business, non-profit or charity.
Just this week in the Hamilton Spectator the City held aloft a report showing that our sector has led the pack in downtown employment. Creative sector employment numbers in the core grew by 20%. This is significant for a number of reasons. The obvious is more jobs, jobs, jobs – the very mantra of the Jobs Prosperity Collaborative, at least a few of the City’s official goals, probably the Chamber of Commerce. This first statistic then typically gives way to a chain of logical spin-offs – increased use of space (owned or leased), increase taxes paid out (employment, property, corporate, sales tax, etc), increased support service businesses that grow to supply that sector with everything from lunch to technology, and so on.
First you get the jobs, then you pay the taxes, then…. Sounds like something from Scarface doesn’t it.
As we’ve seen with the current pitch before Council for the McMaster/Board of Ed switcheroo the way one might think the sentence above should end may be “then you get the political influence”. I wish it would end “then you get to show the community what 3 massive institutions can really do to build a great community” but it doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction. Seems we’re going to tear down two buildings, spend $20M in City funds, and sign a massive lease to prop the project up.
Aside from my obvious dissatisfaction with the Board of Education’s choice to leave our core, McMaster’s choice to demolish a stunning building, dangle “phase II” carrots, and shy away from public dialogue around a massive request – my greatest disappointment is how the rules change depending on what sector is at the table.
If our sector is growing at this rate the infrastructure, funding support, services and civic attention required to keep this positive trend in motion must follow. As one of the few organizations (not the only) in this community dedicated almost entirely to developing that infrastructure it enrages me to see such massive institutions again being handed the golden key to come downtown when we’ve made such progress with very little support for the better part of the last decade, without tearing down our heritage or leaving a nasty environmental legacy. Additionally we’re doing all of the above while expressing our culture, exploring ideas, educating children, encouraging diversity and inclusion, celebrating our complex heritage, engaging citizens and creating vibrant neighbourhoods.
The City reported it themselves – we’re leading the pack in the core.
The vanguards of early James N. circa the 1990s started it for us to observe, analyze, experience and engage in, our Hamilton Creative City Initiative Report 5 years ago predicted the growth, then the Creative Catalyst saw a study completed by independent consultants verify the thinking and calling for support. Council loved the idea and was interested in moving forward but a handful of concerned voices and an election changed that tune.
The project has been shelved as a good idea that will never come to fruition. Maybe we didn’t ask for enough support? Maybe we didn’t come to the table with an 11th hour fete accompli shot gun decision to force down Council throat? Maybe we hadn’t proven ourselves enough yet as a sector of merit?
Maybe, just maybe we we’re coming to the table as a partner showing it’s cards: information, a track record, ideas to explore, a desire for an open and public relationship, limitations expressed, and a desire to work together on the complexities before pulling the trigger. What fools!
The deal before us on the Board of Education/McMaster project is pathetic. The spin-off outcomes are just as speculative as any other proposal will be. The complete demolition of multiple buildings is unnecessary and environmentally, socially and culturally regressive. The dependency on the City as a primary funder to the tune of $20M and a long-term premium lease shows the project is completely reliant on the municipality to prop its business case. The shotgun decision-making tactics are disrespectful to Council, city staff and the taxpayers funding this project.
We must demand better.
If the City is going to support the growth of the core it should look at giving a fair shake to the sector that seems to be already pulling its weight. The creative sector.

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