Repositioning Hamilton As The Gateway To The Niagara Region

As we seek to establish our place and identity, Hamilton tends to orient itself with relation to Toronto - but if we chose to, we could look east to the Niagara Region instead.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published February 17, 2013

"Hamilton should position itself as the gateway to the experiences of the Niagara Region - the vineyards, food, and agriculture of that area."

That suggestion was made by Ken Greenberg, writer and urban planner, during a renewal-focused event in Hamilton last summer. As we seek to establish our place and identity, Hamilton tends to orient itself with relation to Toronto, he observed - but if we chose to, we could look east to the Niagara Region instead.

His suggestion resonated with me then and still does, because when my wife and I are looking to relax and enjoy the finer things in life, it's the Niagara Region we tend to visit.

Not long after attending the event where I heard Greenberg speak, we stayed in a bed and breakfast in Jordan Village, a lovely place in the heart of Niagara's wine country. My wife and I were enjoying our first full weekend without the kids - and believe me, it is not hard to enjoy this place.

One of many vineyards in the region.

The countryside is picturesque. Rolling hills are covered in a patchwork of vineyards. Rustic fields are punctuated by modern wineries which range in style from traditional to modern. Regardless of appearance, the wineries offer a uniformly welcoming experience, featuring tastings of excellent wines and knowledgeable staff.

Wine-tasting tours in Ontario are a must-try experience.

It doesn't take long to realize that a deep appreciation for life's simpler pleasures has evolved here over decades. Wine, cheese, bread, locally raised livestock and locally grown fruits and vegetables are the pride of this place and make visiting it a true treat for the senses.

Local cheeses are second-to-none.

Then there's the outdoor experiences. In addition to being a rich source of adolescent jokes, Ball's Falls has gorgeous natural landscapes and forested trails, as well as interesting preserved buildings and historical artifacts.

Cyclists are common here and cycling feels safe, fast, and utterly enjoyable. If zooming down a sunny lane bordered by vineyards with a loaf of fresh bread, some fine cheese and a bottle of local wine in your backpack doesn't awaken profound joy, chances are you're dead or in need of medication.

Nor is the experience limited to the summer months. One of our favourite getaways is Niagara-on-the-Lake, where recently we happened to chance on the Icewine Festival, a superb event featuring top-notch food and the special type of wine that Canada leads the world in producing.

The experience is not unlike the experiences I've had in the wine regions of France and Italy. What's especially remarkable about this is that these experiences are just 30 minutes from Hamilton!

One of the big differences between this region, however, and the famous wine regions of Europe is that traveling in Europe is also a rich cultural experience. As picturesque as Niagara is, it does not have the history or culture that one finds in Bordeaux or Tuscany.

This is where Hamilton has an important role to play. As the largest nearby city, Hamilton has many cultural and historical experiences to offer, as well as many great restaurants that are more affordable and varied than the best wine country has to offer.

My sense that many people in the GTHA are clueless about this region, which feels like it's on a different continent than the one that's home to the gridlock on the 400-series highways, was confirmed by a winery owner who said that he hears comments to that effect by visitors from Toronto on a daily basis.

"Part of the problem," he said, "is that Ontarians have very limited access to wines from this area because of the LCBO monopoly." As a small producer, he is unable to produce the quantities needed to be permanently stocked on LCBO shelves.

Whereas small producers of other items (say, cheese or honey) have many alternatives to Walmart when it comes to finding outlets for their wares, wine producers have just one.

The bureaucratic system he described, where a board of tasters at the LCBO can reject a wine you've worked all year to produce, is the ultimate nightmare for any believer in free enterprise. Add to this several years of unpredictable weather and some producers are really struggling.

This makes a partnership between Hamilton and Niagara a win-win situation. Hamilton gets the benefit of additional tourists and a revamped image, while local producers get more visitors, more exposure, and more direct sales of their products.

Simple initiatives, such as producing maps that combine Hamilton cultural attractions with Vineland vineyards (with a few discounts thrown in), could start articulating a complete experience for visitors. Creating events in Hamilton based on this regional partnership could solidify the connection in the minds of GTA-based tourists.

As discussions about Hamilton's future, tourism potential, image and role continue to dominate much of the local conversation in our city, it's worth remembering that there are many possible directions and many untapped possibilities open to us. Turning Hamilton into the gateway to the Niagara Region is one worth considering.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz


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By jason (registered) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 09:14:44

I've long wondered why Hamilton doesn't market the wonderful Eco-tourism opportunities that abound here. From our waterfalls to hiking trails, rock climbing, ice climbing, skiing, vineyards, local restaurants at many of the vineyards etc, we literally have something for everyone from urban and artistic to rural and natural. Vancouver has banded itself with a heavy emphasis on the ocean and mountains. You can't find a Portland promo anywhere that doesn't go on and on about Multnomah Falls. It's over an hour from the city and is 1 waterfall. A beautiful one, but we have several beautiful ones right in the city. Cape Town has done the same with its natural abundance along the ocean but also they constantly promote the wine region. Much like ours, it's right there when you leave the city and head east. The recent story of a Niagara winery planning a brewery in Dundas is further proof of the natural connection that already exists. If anyone needs further confirmation of how valuable and attractive our natural surrounding areas are, take your famiky for a hike at Websters or Rock Chapel etc on Easter Monday or Victoria Day. Last year we were turned away from a couple of hiking areas due to mass congestion and no more room. We want to a couple of local farms and farm markets and they were jammed. With downtown now becoming a destination with great food, culture and districts to enjoy along Locke, James N&S, Hess, the Waterfront etc. along with established urban areas like Westdle and Dundas, we have every reason to promote Hamilton and environs as a great getaway. Chat with people you meet hiking or taking pics of the waterfalls and ask them where they are from. Many are from the GTA. I would also add that we should treat the escarpment in the same way when it comes to marketing. From Mt Nemo to Springridge Farm to the Bruce Trail to Albion Falls, lets claim the escarpment as our own backyard much like the cities I mentioned above do with their natural wonders.

I agree Ade, there is a whole new focus on our marketing that should be taken. Toronto or Montreal would die to have all that we have within 10-45 minutes of our downtown core.

One minor correction though- Niagara is east of here.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:46:09 in reply to Comment 86416

One minor correction though- Niagara is east of here.

Duh. Fixed - thanks!

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 09:46:35

By the way, just to add another dimension to my thoughts: This is one, of many reasons, I believe Hamilton should re-position the downtown core and West Harbour as a historic feeling district akin to old Montreal. Imagine cobblestoning James St from the escarpment to harbour, Imagine turning Main, King, Cannon and Bay into walkable tree-lined streets where business owners can begin to re-invest in with new restaurants, patios, hotels, condos. Imagine being able to easily zip around Hamilton's great urban districts on LRT. Imagine a city filled with bike rental stations where one can explore Cootes Paradise, the waterfront trail, escarpment Bruce Trail and it's various lookouts and take in a local meal at Radius or Bread Bar and a late night concert all in one day? Nobody is coming here to see how fast they can drive on a desolate Cannon St or Main St. Perhaps the state of our downtown the past 40 years is one of the main reasons why we haven't seen this connection between our cultured wine region and city. Folks touring in that area would enjoy a downtown that feels cultured, safe and vibrant, not one that is trying to be a suburb. We could reap an entire new group of tourists by offering a wonderful, fun urban experience right here in the wine region. When it comes time to start developing the West Harbour, we would be wise to be more Distillery District and less Arizona lifestyle mall.

Cultured tourists will come for this.
We have the old streets, the old buildings, the arts, the great food and a stunning waterfront. We need the political leadership to realize how we can position ourselves in this mega-region. We can offer something that nobody else can. 5-lane Mississauga style streets aren't our ticket. Fun, bustling urbanism is.

We've got some of this in place already. We need to connect the districts with walkable historic-feeling streetscapes, bike sharing and electric transit. Add historic street lamps, trees and floral planters to Main, King, James, John and Bay. Cobblestone Augusta, James and Barton from Ferguson to Locke.

I'm convinced that with the momentum downtown already, these investments by the city would see a whole host of private development and help create the urban core we want and that can become a huge draw in the GTA/Southern Ontario market.

In the meantime, promote what we have and link the city to the countryside by showing off our best.

Comment edited by jason on 2013-02-17 09:47:02

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:10:47 in reply to Comment 86417

We already have a plan in place to convert a half-dozen streets to two way, some with bike lanes. All that we have to do is allocate funding and follow through. As good a place as any to start is making good on 2002's to-do list.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:59:09 in reply to Comment 86417

I believe Hamilton should re-position the downtown core and West Harbour as a historic feeling district akin to old Montreal. Imagine cobblestoning James St from the escarpment to harbour, Imagine turning Main, King, Cannon and Bay into walkable tree-lined streets where business owners can begin to re-invest in with new restaurants, patios, hotels, condos. Imagine being able to easily zip around Hamilton's great urban districts on LRT. Imagine a city filled with bike rental stations where one can explore Cootes Paradise, the waterfront trail, escarpment Bruce Trail and it's various lookouts and take in a local meal at Radius or Bread Bar and a late night concert all in one day?

This is an amazing vision. I'd love to see this fleshed out into a package that city council could sell to the public. This is so much more exciting than many of the projects the city has undertaken that cost far more money than I think this would.

To get city-wide buy-in, perhaps the vision includes these types of transformations focused on a section in every ward, so the entire city can take part. Concession Street on the mountain and Ottawa Street come to mind. The different areas could be connected by cycle paths and public transit routes and you could promote a ward-by-ward tour that visited each of the different areas.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 23:18:55 in reply to Comment 86422

I'd be happy to chat and perhaps enough folks can come on board to prepare an official presentation or vision to bring to council. All it would take is a few year plan to make the investments I've suggested and with the momentum we already have, you can be sure new investment will follow. But we need to make downtown a compact, vibrant place that people want to come and see. We aren't going to compete with a mega-downtown up the freeway, but we can create our own little hub of urbanism in a natural setting that people love to enjoy for a weekend or day-trip from the GTA and elsewhere. Our 1950's vibe through the oldest parts of our city is really the biggest obstacle we face. Create livable, green, safe streets with a nod to our history via cobblestone, iron lampposts and public art and this would become a great tourist destination surrounded by all the wonderful natural amenities we've been talking about.

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By Mr. Geography (anonymous) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 09:48:44

The Niagara region is east of Hamilton... Not west as the article suggests! Please correct.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 22:20:14 in reply to Comment 86418

Somebody found this disagreeable/offensive. Funny. :-)

And some of the other responses too. Funnier still.

Comment edited by ScreamingViking on 2013-02-17 22:21:05

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2013 at 08:03:10 in reply to Comment 86426

There's one RTH user who seems to downvote comments out of sheer spite.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2013 at 09:09:31 in reply to Comment 86429

There are actually several of them

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By z jones (registered) | Posted February 18, 2013 at 09:36:52 in reply to Comment 86431

Just speaking for me I down vote your comments because they're rediculous and mean.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted February 19, 2013 at 09:09:37 in reply to Comment 86433

Likewise. And I can spell 'ridiculous' properly, too! :)

Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2013-02-19 09:10:10

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:50:09

From Tourism Hamilton's Premier Ranked Tourist Destinations Framework study (November 2005):

Defining Hamilton’s Current Tourism Status
The PRTDF final report captures a broad range of quantifiable, qualitative and anecdotal data designed to describe Hamilton’s tourism industry as accurately and thoroughly as possible. In fact, the PRTDF represents the most comprehensive and insightful analysis ever of not just Hamilton’s tourism industry, but of the tourism sectors of almost every Ontario community participating in the process. The collected data provide the platform for fact-based, but subjective ratings on a three-point scale in response to almost one hundred different questions. Answers to these questions are all one of YES,
ALMOST or NO, representing achievement, progress or challenge, respectively. By far the majority of Hamilton’s answers fall into the ALMOST category, reflecting a tourism market that has much to be proud of, but much still to accomplish.

Hamilton’s middle-of-the-road status – reflected in the predominance of the ALMOST rating – is the defining characteristic of the PRTDF findings. While Hamilton clearly has a number of significant tourism strengths and weaknesses, these do not dominate the local tourism landscape. Hamilton’s tourism industry, in fact, currently has no discernable brand in the marketplace. Instead, the City is in the unique position of being able to shape its own tourism future in an absence of factors, attractors or influences that would force movement in any particular direction. This “almost” status may seem problematic; it certainly could be. On the other hand, it represents a great opportunity for tourism in the City Hamilton. With the PRTDF as a catalyst, Hamilton’s tourism stakeholders have the ability to affect powerful change and drive the tourism agenda according to a well-planned and well-informed strategic direction.

Tourism Value
The PRTDF found that Hamilton consistently offers value for the tourist dollar. This would clearly make Hamilton not just an attractive staging ground for day trips into the more expensive markets of Niagara Falls and Toronto, but also an accessible supplementary tourism option to those dominant markets. On the other hand, Hamilton’s value proposition translates into lower tourism revenues, resulting in less money to invest in program enhancement, facility development and marketing. Part of Hamilton’s tourism strategy needs to be a well-conceived plan to retain its attractive value proposition while enhancing the City’s ability to attract up-market visitors by offering the type of attractions, accommodations, shopping and dining that will inspire longer stays and greater spending.

Visitor Spending
In a finding that is clearly linked to tourism value (above) and holding visitor interest (below), the PRTDF reveals that visitor spending in Hamilton is startlingly below the provincial averages for all types of travel. This statistic represents an enormous opportunity for tourism in Hamilton. For most tourism areas, attracting visitors and tourists is likely the biggest challenge in expanding the market. In Hamilton, however, the tourism industry and the City could experience a significant economic boost without attracting a single additional visitor, simply by increasing visitor spending. Any tourism development strategy should have that target as one of its primary goals.

Holding Visitor Interest
Hamilton suffers from a lack of a wide range of memorable core experiences that would make it easier to keep people engaged for more than a single day. The findings of the PRTDF indicate that visitors to Hamilton can generally experience everything they want to without having to stay overnight. This speaks to the niche character of Hamilton’s tourism industry, but also represents an opportunity for the City to have a dramatic impact by holding visitors’ interest just a little longer. By creating and/or marketing tourism offerings that could extend a visitor’s stay by just a few hours, Hamilton could trigger a dramatic increase in visitor spending, with all of the accompanying benefits of that change.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:54:46

Great article.

Connections with surrounding areas is something the local tourism folks could be playing up more, and not just to Niagara. Hamilton also represents a great home base for day tripping to Toronto, KW & other Grand River towns, Port Dover, etc. Oh, and while you're in town, check out this and this and this and this...

I think the fact that we're sandwiched between major tourist destinations has tended to be viewed as an impediment. It's actually a plus, provided the city is marketed for its own attractions and merits.

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By KevinBrowne (registered) - website | Posted February 18, 2013 at 21:21:11

Great, great article Adrian!

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 18, 2013 at 21:27:07

Today (Family Day) was another indicator of the eco-tourism opportunities staring us in the face. Hundreds of people skating, playing hockey and having BBQ's at Cootes Paradise. Ice climbing in the city:

We hiked at Cherry Hill gate and it was packed with people enjoying the sun and feeding the birds. The rink at Pier 8 was completely packed all day long as well.

The list goes on and on....

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By Strider (anonymous) | Posted February 19, 2013 at 11:04:18 in reply to Comment 86448

A great boost to the membership rolls!

These annual fees help sustain conservation efforts, maintain these areas and mitigate the ecological damage caused by their increasing popularity.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:10:15

I think this is a great plan. With a big BUT. One issue I have experienced firsthand having accompanied many foreign visitors to Niagara is the main image the majority of people see when driving through the "Hamilton gateway" to Niagara and what affect that has on their first reaction and subsequent lasting impression of Hamilton.

Fact is on a bad day we present the image of an industrial wasteland that smells like shit. When the main landscape we show the world is used as a back drop for dystopian-future movies with little augmentation we have a problem.

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