Special Report: Casino

Hamilton Must Build on its Unique Strengths

When we chase insubstantial opportunities for which Hamilton has no particular ability to deliver, we are merely shifting money from one place to another - or worse, taking it from the causes for which it is better suited.

By Ben Bull
Published February 21, 2013

When I started out on my quest to understand the elements of urban design and how to create a liveable city, I had the good fortune of meeting and interviewing a number of influential politicians. One such civic leader was George Mudie, ex-leader of Leeds City Council.

One lesson George taught me brought to mind the current debate over a Hamilton casino: "Don't go chasing the same things."

Build on Your Unique Strengths

George was talking about the Call Centre culture in England, back in the late 1980s. The '80s were a dire time for many British cities. Raw material industries, like coal and steel, were on the decline, and other staples such as finance and car manufacturing were not yet ready to expand beyond their host city base.

All that was left then was, well, all that was left.

Cities were, of course, desperate to attract jobs - any jobs - to get their ledgers back in black. One of the industries they went chasing was Call Centre companies.

After incessant lobbying, Leeds successfully re-located the government's Department of Health and Social Security Call Centre from London. When I talked to Mudie I touted this as a success story.

He didn't see it that way.

"It was the wrong way of doing things," Mudie told me as I sharpened my pencil and scratched my head. "That's not the way to go."

I asked him why. After all, I knew people who were grateful for these new jobs.

"Because you need to build on your unique strengths," he told me. "that's the key point."

Mudie explained how Leeds came to realize that chasing generic opportunities created generic cities, cities of no substance. When towns chase the same things, he told me, when they attract jobs that can easily be re-transplanted, there is no employment stability and no net gain to be had, just the ever-present risk that these jobs will move again.

"Build on your strengths," he reiterated.

No Net New Value

This conversation came to mind as I scrolled through the comments section in a recent RTH Hamilton casino article. I realized, as I read, that Hamilton is, once again, on the cusp of championing a business venture which seeks to leverage nothing unique about the host venue.

In short, a Hamilton casino will bring no net new value to the city. Instead, rather than create new opportunity and new wealth, a casino will merely squeeze more money from the local citizenry and provide mostly menial, mediocre jobs for residents who demand, and deserve, more.

If and when the local punters are bled dry, the casino will simply shut up shop and move on. After all, what is there to keep them here?

This 'chasing the scraps' mentality has been in evidence many times before. I recall the Maple Leaf Foods fiasco a few years ago. And of course there is the never-ending quest to build bigger and 'better' malls.

Neither of these businesses seeks to capitalize on a unique Hamilton strength. None of these ventures set the town apart - unless part-time jobs with low wages is something the city wishes to promote.

Something Unique

A city's ability to prosper and grow, to create new wealth, is directly proportional to its ability to uniquely satisfy a demand or create a new one.

When we chase insubstantial opportunities for which Hamilton has no particular ability to deliver, we are merely shifting money from one place to another, or worse still - as is the case with a casino - taking money away from the causes to which it is better suited.

What Hamilton needs to prosper is real wealth creation - something new, something unique.

One of the reasons steel built this city is because of Hamilton's unique combination of water access and multi-modal transportation. The reason Hamilton is now a centre of excellence for health research is because of the unique concentration of superior facilities and bright minds at McMaster.

Unless Hamilton seeks to set itself apart with its adoption of a casino, i.e. to create a mini-Vegas, or some other form of unique adaptation, then it will be lumbered with just another casino. Just as Jackson Square soon became just another mall.

In the end, when it comes to building a successful, sustainable city, there is nothing new to be gained from nothing new.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

16 Comments

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 21, 2013 at 07:33:24

Pretty insightful article. As you say, one casino in Hamilton (even if located in an entertainment complex) makes us little better than Brantford, and certainly still keeps us below the level of Niagara Falls and any possible Toronto Casino.

Such a development will not add anything substantial to Hamilton in the long run other than a physical building.

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By Conrad664 (registered) | Posted February 21, 2013 at 07:50:23

So emty Hotel are good for Hamilton , i think a Casino complex and entertainment whould fill most of all the hotels in downtown

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By PublicSpacePete (registered) | Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:41:12 in reply to Comment 86566

Conrad, we would be competing for tourists with TO & Nfalls. Our only positive differentiator with those would be our waterfalls, not enough. That's why our casino will be more brantford than resort.

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2013 at 17:04:00 in reply to Comment 86566

Because Brantford has a ton of filled hotel rooms now? Maybe I missed them.

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By raisemyslammers (anonymous) | Posted February 21, 2013 at 10:38:34

why is the above comment being downvoted? All he did was state his simple oppinion?

Regardless, this article sounds like a great concept, however no real tangible ideas were proposed here by the author.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 21, 2013 at 12:33:40 in reply to Comment 86581

Many people use downvoting as a form of agree/disagree (although I don't think that was the intention of it when it was first introduced).

The author has given some examples (education/healthcare, proximity to water rail and air for intermodal transport etc.) of what makes Hamilton "unique". I would add old heritage buildings, our industrial past, and our growing artistic re-adaptation of existing building to that list.

People should come to Hamiton to vist an old style city, reinvented.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:32:17 in reply to Comment 86587

Many people use downvoting as a form of agree/disagree (although I don't think that was the intention of it when it was first introduced).

True.

There's a difference between "disagree" and "offensive", and the options as they are set on this site don't allow for that distinction.

How about creating a third choice to better reflect agree vs. disagree vs. offensive, RTH?

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2013 at 08:41:05 in reply to Comment 86587

Think of up and down voting as the cliques you had to endure in high school

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted February 21, 2013 at 21:05:17

Excellent and insightful commentary.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2013 at 08:39:58

Certainly a different outlook on Hamilton compared to so many other posts and articles on this site. Over and over we read that there is nothing unique about Hamilton and the things that work in other cities will work here. Never mind any differences naysayers try to point out. Here you take the opposite view that Hamilton is unique and unlike other cities and what works there might not work here. Pretty radical approach, going by past results the outpouring of opposition to your viewpoint will be mind boggling and might make you wish you had never written the article.

Here's hoping that you take things in stride and keep going.

Good Luck

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:38:02

Great article.

I often see Hamilton strengths acknowledged in reports and articles, even by the politicians. But are they truly being used as the basis for long-term city strategies? Are they too quickly forgotten amid the issues of the day or the urge to play "me too" when it comes to development?

It's something to think about.

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2013 at 17:12:23

Great article. With regards to casinos and temporariness, I wonder what becomes of Brantford's casino if all the other casinos end up built? A casino requires a certain number of patrons to justify keeping it open. I doubt that Brantford's local gamblers will be enough to justify keeping it open.

Some people look at Brantford's casino and point to the money they used to attract post-secondary institutions. That's true, but if they were so valuable (and I don't disagree that they are) that money could have been found some way. That's the way I look at Hamilton and LRT. The province is going to require us to pony up some money. Where is it going to come from? I would say limit police and fire spending and take the savings every year from that and put it towards an LRT fund. That money would be end up a far greater catalyst effect than a few extra patrol officers on the street, or the 600K mounted unit, that looks nice, but is really a waste of money.

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2013 at 22:06:15

Main Street is blushing.

http://www.wheels.ca/news/more-toronto-traffic-lights-may-soon-be-in-sync

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2013 at 08:52:55

Downtown Hamilton is sighing.

http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2013/02/22/architects_turn_to_adaptive_reuse_to_save_heritage_buildings.html

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