A history of the Hamilton Civic Coalition, an informal gathering of community leaders working together to develop a new direction in city development.
By Roy Adams
Published January 08, 2009
In what was perhaps the cruelest joke of the day, on April 1, 2008 the Hamilton Civic Coalition came to an end just when it appeared that it was about to take its place as one of Hamilton's key civic institutions.
The Coalition began to come together in 2003. I was the instigator, the convenor. When Dave Christopherson gave up his seat in the provincial legislature in order to run for mayor, I was drafted to stand in his stead.
During my campaign I was impressed by the work of the Toronto City Summit Alliance. It had created an agenda that called for new investment in education, the arts, transportation and immigrant integration among other important issues. I thought its report, entitled Enough Talk, was terrific.
When I was defeated in a Liberal sweep, I started calling up top Hamilton leaders, asking them to have a look at the report and consider whether a similar initiative might be a good idea for Hamilton. Nearly all agreed that it would be.
Among the founding members of the organization were the heads of our three post-secondary institutions and of our three hospital systems, the presidents of both Dofasco and Stelco, and top executives of the Chamber of Commerce and Hamilton Labour Council. Also at the table were the CEO's of Wesley Urban Ministries, the Settlement and Immigration Service, the Hamilton Community Foundation, the Social Planning and Research Council and of the airport and port authority as well as representatives from the public school board, the arts community and dedicated environmentalists.
By design there were no politicians, but city manager Glen Peace became a member.
At the group's inaugural meeting in February of 2004 Fred Eisenberger, then Chair of the Port Authority, suggested the name Hamilton Civic Coalition (HCC), which was accepted. Peter George, President of McMaster University and Don Pether, President of Dofasco became the co-chairs and it was decided initially to undertake projects on the arts, affordable housing and innovation.
Although groups were set up to address those issues, the structure was informal and without staff the initiative began to lose momentum. To get things moving, I was asked at the November 2004 meeting to take on the position of Executive Director on a part time basis, a job I held until the summer of 2007.
Among the major achievements of the Coalition was the establishment of an affordable housing initiative that teamed up with another one already underway to become eventually the City's Affordable Housing Flagship. That group brought together a wide range of people interested in and concerned about housing and managed to breathe some life into what had been a dormant situation.
The Coalition also got strongly behind Mayor Larry Di Ianni's effort to get the province to address the city's huge social services deficit. In addition to annual lobbying, Tom Cooper of McQuesten Legal Services and I on behalf of the Coalition took the initiative that led to the report Downloaded Dilemma, which carefully documented (and got considerable publicity) for the problem.
In short, the Coalition can take at least partial credit for the annual special grants that have come from the province for the past several years.
In 2006 I prevailed on Dave May, Regional VP for Toronto Dominion Bank, to initiate an immigrant mentoring project. Dave recruited Regional VPs of other banks and, with the help of Hamilton's Settlement and Immigration Service, got a program in action that has been a major success. Several immigrants skilled in finance are now working up to their potential rather than languishing in low skill, low pay jobs.
The Coalition also got strongly behind the freezing of transit fares for environmental, economic and social reasons and fares were frozen for at least one year and raised to a lesser amount than what staff proposed another year. In pursuing that objective, the Coalition took the leadership in bringing together the Chamber of Commerce, Hamilton Labour Council and Environment Hamilton, who signed a joint letter in favour of the freeze. I believe that is a first for the city.
But the Coalition's story is not one of unmitigated success. The central project of the Downtown Revival group was getting the busses off of Gore Park so that the park could be revived as a central destination spot. It seemed like a no-brainer since City Council was for it, as was Mayor Di Ianni, but staff dug in their heals and Gore Park remains a bus parking lot rather than the pleasureable oasis it could be.
An Arts and Recreation project designed to enhance and publicize Hamilton's under-appreciated assets was just getting off the ground when the group's co-chair, Bruce Duncan, died prematurely in a senseless car accident and the effort stalled.
A major stumbling block was the so-called aerotropolis project, a proposal to establish employment lands around Hamilton International Airport, on which the group could come to no consensus.
In 2007 Peter George (and shortly thereafter Don Pether) decided that it was time to move on and Mark Chamberlain was prevailed upon to take up the post. A civic whirlwind, Mark also chaired the Hamilton Community Foundation and Poverty Roundtable. He had new ideas. He wanted the Coalition to focus on a major project and it was eventually agreed that the project would be jobs.
It was also decided to seek some serious money so that a professional executive director could be recruited. I was, after all, an amateur and had intended from the start that I be a sort of stop gap so I supported this new direction. But eventually it took an unnecessary and, from my perspective at least, unwise turn.
I thought that the new initiative would conserve and build upon the established tradition. Several of us had, after all, worked very hard to develop a distinctive and workable corporate culture.
I proposed that the Jobs Collaborative be put forth as a major initiative of the Coalition, but Mark and a few others wanted to completely rebrand and redirect the whole effort.
Although several members with whom I spoke were uncomfortable with the proposed change, those who wanted the change were willing to devote considerable time and resources to the new effort and they prevailed.
The new entity - the Jobs Prosperity Collaborative - is not independent but is, instead, a joint project with the city (PDF link). It is well-funded and, along with new executive director Tim Dobbie (recently Burlington City Manager), a sub-group of what was the Coalition are working with the city on a plan that might well have an important impact.
I wish the project well; but I mourn the death of the Coalition that I had hoped would be pursuing its mission of making Hamilton one of the best Canadian cities in which to work and live well into the 22nd century. HCC RIP.
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