Commentary

Hamilton Civic Coalition: A Retrospective

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.

Formation

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.

Achievements

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.

Difficulties

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.

New Direction

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.

Roy J. Adams, McMaster University Emeritus Professor, is Executive Director of the Hamilton Civic Coalition a group of community leaders dedicated to realizing the city's potential.

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By dubious (anonymous) | Posted January 09, 2009 at 10:46:39

Please forgive me if I'm somewhat cynical about the effectiveness of closed groups of community "leaders" developing civic life.

As "leaders" the individuals involved might be presumed to already have more influence in political activity and community affairs than the average citizen. It is good for the political process to consult with such people, and good that they have have a forum to discuss their ideas and priorities among themselves, but what makes this forum different from, say, the Chamber of Commerce or other advocacy groups?

Historically, I'd suggest that the city's limitations may have been a result of too much influence resting in the hands of a small community elite (which is what sociologists used to call community "leaders".) This is not to say that nothing of value ever came from such practices, but I'd like to suggest that more can be gained by opening up the political process than by devising more ways to put more power in the hands of existing "leaders".

There's a tendency for the powerful, or "leaders", an elite, or anyone for that matter, to look at problems in ways that benefit themselves or those similar to themselves. We may tackle poverty, for instance, by hiring a group of middle-class social workers to move in and "advise" members of a community, rather than by providing jobs to that community to say, clear snow or sweep downtown streets, or to drive buses for expanded public transit systems.

I think more gets done when groups organize to advocate for themselves in open political systems than by forming additional ways for civic "leaders" to extend their powers.

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By Bob Bratina (anonymous) | Posted January 13, 2009 at 21:23:27

I bumped into Roy Adams at Hamilton Place just before Christmas, and was asked by him about the buses at Gore Park. I described how the process is underway, and where and when they would be gone. The next day I commented to someone on this encounter and said that I was sure he didn't hear what I said. Lo and behold the statement in this commentary.
So here it is again. The preferred plan was to build a $15 million dollar terminal building in the parking lot beside the Pigott building, and move the buses there. I fought this as some of the residents of the Pigott can attest, and in the end had the following plan approved by Council, costing between $3 and 5 million. Under this so-called "hybrid" plan some buses will move to a revamped terminal on MacNab Street, and others to the GO Station on Hunter, hopefully by the end of this year. The rationale is as follows: Connectivity with GO Transit is vital, therefore some routes will stop there at a platform that has already been constructed, at GO's cost. The MacNab site is already in place and easily expanded. A small service building for ticketing, etc. will be constructed on the east side of MacNab between King and Main.
The new arrangement should be in place as I said, later this year. This was all accomplished with no input as I recollect from the H.C.C.

Not unexpectedly there is no acknowledgement of $200 million dollars in new construction or renovation, accomplished through the Downtown Renewal Office incentives programs. The new Terraces on King, the new Simpson-Wigle offices at James South and Hunter, the Victoria-McKay heritage renovation at the Gore, the London Tap, the Chateau Royale, MacGillivray Partners Building at 33 Main East, Gowlings at Main and James, Staybridge Suites, and many more were all built and opened in the last 5 years, adding millions of dollars of assessment and tax revenue to the Core. The H.C.C.'s contribution if anything was negative, especially with its tacit endorsement of the Lister Project which will cost taxpayers 44 milion dollars over 20 years, perhaps the most expensive building per square foot ever built in Hamilton.

So, to sum up....BUSES GONE FROM GORE 2009 to MACNAB and GO STATION.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2009 at 14:56:17

Amen, Dubious!

"Historically, I'd suggest that the city's limitations may have been a result of too much influence resting in the hands of a small community elite (which is what sociologists used to call community "leaders".)

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