The Our City, Our Future campaign is an interesting case study of how citizens used alternative and social media to mobilize public support and directly engage decision makers.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 25, 2011
The owners of professional sports franchises get what they want. In rich markets and poor, in times of rousing success and dismal failure, sports team owners manage to squeeze tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars out of the public to fund the stadiums and arenas in which their teams play.
It's a phenomenon so well understood that it has acquired a glib nickname: Pro Sports Extortion. All the owner has to do is threaten to leave and relocate the team to some mythical greener pasture, and politicians fall over themselves to close the deal - no matter the public cost.
This tired refrain recently played out in Hamilton, Ontario, but with a fresh twist: a group of citizens organized a campaign calling on the municipal and provincial governments to put the community's public objectives ahead of the football team's private interest. It was a good example of community engagement and popular education.
The outcome of the affair is a mixed bag, but the campaign offers lessons that may help other citizens trying to change the terms of debate in a controversial, emotion-laden issue.
Our story begins on February 23, 2009, when Hamilton City Council voted to join a regional bid, led by Toronto, to host the 2015 Pan American Games, an international multi-sport event featuring amateur competitors fromthe nations of the Americas.
The clincher, for Hamilton, was the opportunity to get higher level funding for a track and field stadium that could be used as a community facility for both recreational and competitive sports, as well as subsequent international sports events. At the same time, a new stadium at a strategic location could act as a catalyst for economic reinvestment and uplift in the surrounding area.
The stadium could also serve to replace the aged and decrepit Ivor Wynne Stadium, home of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats CFL football team.
The City had already gone through a selection process to pick a stadium location through its earlier involvement in bids to host the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealth Games. The preferred site was a parcel of abandoned industrial land at Barton Street and Tiffany Street, just north of the downtown core, that overlooked Bayfront Park and the city's beautiful West Harbour.
The West Harbour is a charming, mixed use urban neighbourhood in recovery from a history of heavy industry, decline and disinvestment. However, the Barton-Tiffany property is a sore spot: a vacant brownfield in a prime location that is contaminated by past industrial use.
A number of developers and property owners have expressed interest in redeveloping the site, but banks won't touch it because of the risks involved in soil remediation. A successful Games bid looked like an ideal opportunity to fund the remediation of the Barton-Tiffany site and create a new legacy facility that would house the Ticats and provide a catalyst for reinvestment of the surrounding properties.
When Hamilton joined the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games bid, the West Harbour site was the obvious choice of location for Hamilton's track and field stadium: close to downtown amenities, close to local and regional transit - including planned light rail transit lines and a planned GO station providing all-day train service - and big enough to house the athletics track, a required warm-up track, and an adjacent velodrome for high-performance cycling.
The Toronto 2015 bid book included an artist's rendition of a pastoral Barton-Tiffany stadium overlooking Bayfront Park.
According to the proposal, the cost of a 15,000 seat stadium would be split between Hamilton, the Province, and the Federal Government. The Ticats and their corporate partners would contribute additional funding to bring the capacity up to 25,000 seats to meet the team's business needs.
Hamilton's contribution would come from the Hamilton Future Fund, a municipal endowment for city-building investments that was created when Hamilton Hydro was transformed into Hamilton Utilities Corporation.
On November 6, 2009, we received good news: the Pan Am bid committee had awarded Toronto the 2015 Games. Three months later, on February 18, 2010, with a business plan by Deloitte Consulting in their hands, Hamilton City Council approved the Barton-Tiffany site as the location for the Pan Am Stadium, warm-up field and velodrome.
The staff recommendation endorsing the West Harbour site concluded: "the true legacy of the 2015 Pan Am Games should be sustainable economic, employment, and prosperity growth."
But after that, the whole process started to go off the rails. The City had consulted with the Ticats as a legacy use partner from the beginning of the Pan Am Games bid, but once the decision was made, the team began publicly expressing concerns about the chosen site.
Ticats owner Bob Young, the technology entrepreneur who had built a fortune as CEO of Red Hat Linux, was quoted on January 13, 2010 in the Hamilton Spectator saying of a Pan Am/Ticats stadium, "We will make it work, whatever the site". (Later, he would claim that his words were taken out of context.)
By March, however, the Ticats were raising concerns about accessibility, visibility for naming rights and available parking.
A transportation study by IBI Group had concluded that the West Harbour site would be accessible "with the proper planning and implementation strategies" but the Ticats wanted more lane capacity and more parking. They wanted a stadium that would be visible from - read: next to - a busy highway.
On May 6, 2010, Bob Young posted a letter on the Ticats website that outright rejected the West Harbour location, detailing his objections and stating, "there has been no collaboration in Hamilton's stadium project to date."
He accused City staff of "summarily reject[ing]" the team's concerns about visibility, accessibility and parking, as well as concerns that the stadium would be a poor fit with its residential neighbours. He concluded that the team would lose $7 million a year at a West Harbour stadium.
Later that day, then-Mayor Fred Eisenberger held a press conference to dispute the Ticats' claim that they weren't part of the site selection process and to affirm that the City was "moving full-steam ahead on the West Harbour site" as the location that provided the clearest public benefit.
Unfortunately, his united front didn't last: a fractious Council immediately started kvetching publicly over the Ticats' objections. By May 18, the City and the team announced that they had agreed to hire a facilitator, seasoned bureaucrat Michael Fenn, to broker an agreement over the stadium.
On June 6, Fenn's report became public. His "compromise" was a different location altogether, a wheat field owned by Ontario Realty Corporation in southeast suburban Hamilton, where the north-south Red Hill Valley Parkway meets the east-west Lincoln Alexander Parkway.
This East Mountain location (named after the "Mountain", or the suburban part of Hamilton on the upper side of the Niagara Escarpment) clearly met the Ticats' demands for naming rights visibility, highway accessibility and parking - but in doing so sacrificed all of the City's objectives.
The report introduced the concept of a "driveway-to-driveway experience" for football fans, concluding, "Accommodating automobile traffic is crucial to stadium success."
Meanwhile, the new location had minimal local transit access, no regional transit access, and would require a new highway interchange to provide access into the proposed 7,000 car parking lot adjacent to the stadium. So much for leveraging public investment as a catalyst for new private investment in the immediate surroundings.
Nevertheless, Council fell in love with the proposal and actually considered dropping the West Harbour location from consideration altogether, before finally voting to study both locations side-by-side in advance of a final decision on August 10.
Meanwhile, the city was up in arms. For too many people, this looked like a straightforward capitulation to narrow private interests: a public investment that was supposed to produce broad public benefits was being hijacked to serve narrow private interests instead.
Opposition mounted. Expressions of support for the West Harbour started pouring in from hundreds of individuals and organizations: Hamilton architects and designers, downtown business owners, medical doctors, the Downtown BIA, the Jobs Prosperity Collaborative, the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, McMaster University students, property developers, and more.
A group of young downtown entrepreneurs held a press conference in the early afternoon to underline their support for the West Harbour stadium. They were surprised when 50-75 private citizens showed up to lend their support.
The message was consistent: the West Harbour would provide the potential for real public benefits that a suburban greenfield stadium next to a highway could not.
As the volunteer editor of raisethehammer.org, a local online magazine with a focus on urban issues, I keenly felt this public outrage. I was receiving dozens of emails a day from people who wanted to do something to stop Council from throwing away this opportunity to help revitalize the downtown core.
I met up with a few friends at a local pub and we decided on the fly to create a website where citizens could endorse the West Harbour and add statements of support that would be forwarded to Council, the Pan Am Host corporation and the Provincial government. We decided that the campaign must be positive and solution-oriented, not negative and competitive.
On July 13, we launched the "Our City, Our Future" (OCOF) campaign with a website, ourcityourfuture.ca, and an invitation to Hamiltonians to show their support.
The campaign called on City Council to "reaffirm the West Harbour location as its choice for the Pan Am Games Stadium to be funded by money through the Future Fund" and invited the Ticats "to be a community partner on new terms that allow for the financial success of the football club at the West Harbour location."
By the time Council made its decision on the East Mountain proposal in mid-August, the campaign had drawn 3,497 supporters and 1,577 public statements of support.
But in the meantime, the story took an astonishing number of twists and turns.
On July 19, Ticat owner Bob Young warned the OCOF campaign that the City's choice was not between a West Harbour stadium and an East Mountain stadium, but between an East Mountain stadium and no stadium at all. He wrote, "[T]he risk your campaign to improve Hamilton is taking in lobbying for the West Harbour is that you will win. If you win you will commit Council to a path that will ensure nothing gets built anywhere in Hamilton for the Pan Am games."
This early threat would characterize the counter-campaign that followed: Pro Sports Extortion 101.
On July 21, the Ticats launched their own website, "Go East Mountain" - goeastmountain.com - which mirrored the OCOF campaign in that it posted articles and letters in support of the East Mountain and ran a tally of supporters. (They also launched a paid Google Adwords campaign promoting the Go East Mountain site in banner ads to people searching Google for related keywords.)
However, aside from a daily selected statement, the Go East Mountain site did not publish its list of supporters or their statements. At one point, the Ticats posted letters of appreciation from the United Way of Burlington and Greater Hamilton and the Lung Association under its list of supporters for the East Mountain, but the letters were removed after the charities complained.
On July 22, Storm Cunningham, an American urbanist and the keynote speaker at the 2010 Hamilton Economic Summit, wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star disputing the Ticats' claim that they won't make money at a downtown stadium. He referenced a University of Maryland study finding that downtown stadiums have larger benefits and crediting Indianapolis and Baltimore for following successful "critical mass" strategies to locate stadiums and other amenities downtown.
On July 27, the Future Fund Board of Governors determined that the East Mountain location did not meet the Fund's mandate to grow the city's economic base, enhance the social fabric and build community. As Nicholas Kevlahan said to the Board of Governors in a delegation from a local citizens' group, "the Future Fund shouldn't spend $60 million of Hamilton's money to make it easier for people from Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Burlington or Brantford to get to Ticat games."
That same day, the Province issued a statement confirming that it would support the City's decision on a stadium site.
On July 29, the Ticats upped the ante with a proposal to build a soccer academy at the East Mountain and a music amphitheatre at the West Harbour. Under their proposal, the amphitheatre would be built using public Future Fund money diverted from the stadium.
Meanwhile, the Pan Am Host corporation decided to move the track and field events to Toronto after Athletics Canada expressed concern that the Ticats would rip up the track once the Games were over. Instead of track and field, Hamilton would get more Pan Am soccer games.
The next day, CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon wrote a letter warning Council to capitulate to Young's demands and choose the East Mountain. "Should this issue force the Tiger-Cats to leave the city, it will be the end of the CFL in Hamilton." On the other hand, the East Mountain location "appears to be a prime location for Grey Cups" (the championship game concluding the CFL season playoffs).
If Cohon's threat was supposed to intimidate Hamilton into backing down, it didn't work. The prevailing response from Hamiltonians, even many Ticat fans, was outrage.
Mayor Eisenberger replied to Cohon, noting that the Ticats had promised to share an economic analysis demonstrating that they could not make money at the West Harbour, but had not done so.
"Rather than point out that Hamilton may be on the verge of losing the Ticats," Eisenberger wrote, "you could perform a valuable public service if you would use your position to encourage the Ticats to put this important financial information forward."
At the same time, sources within the CFL acknowledged that Cohon's threat was hollow: the Ticats had nowhere else to go. Only Ottawa had a CFL-ready stadium, but was already committed to securing an expansion team.
An open letter to Council from the OCOF campaign a few days later marked a clear contrast to the bullying language of the Ticats and their supporters: "We are not here to bully or threaten you. We are here to show you the passion, desire, and vision we want for Hamilton and to help you make it a reality. Threats are for those who are in it for narrow interest, for the short term. We are all the caretakers of Hamilton's future and we are with you for the broad public interest and for the long haul."
On August 2, the Ticats tried to argue that the West Harbour violated the City's Official Plan and any stadium construction there would be bogged down indefinitely in red tape. The next day, Mayor Eisenberger issued a statement clarifying that the City's planning and legal departments had found "no basis at all" to the Ticats' claim.
On August 6, under close scrutiny from a highly engaged public, City staff finally released their report on the East Mountain stadium location: it would be significantly more expensive to build and operate than one at the West Harbour. It would also mean millions of dollars in foregone tax assessment growth, because rather than catalyzing adjacent investment it would actually displace potential investment by wasting a developable greenfield on low-value surface parking.
It concluded that the East Mountain location did not meet the City's objectives of "sustainable economic, employment and prosperity growth".
Things didn't look good for the East Mountain, and for its supporters the last resort was outright political interference. Out of the blue, on the afternoon of August 6, the Province issued a statement that the Federal Government would only provide funding for an East Mountain stadium.
In response to the news, Mayor Eisenberger fumed:
The community has spoken loudly and clearly that the West Harbour makes the most sense for the people of Hamilton. It is obvious that the upper levels of government are ignoring the community and have instead listened to private interests. The truth is the West Harbour won. The West harbour won the support of the community. The West Harbour won because it is best for the community. Powerful private interests compelled the federal and provincial governments to move the goal posts. They changed the game so they could win.
Phone calls and emails poured into the Provincial and Federal governments decrying this political interference. It dominated an angry panel discussion held that night to a standing-room only crowd at Christ's Church Cathedral on James Street North, which had been planned to discuss opportunities for city-building through the stadium investment.
It also dominated a packed rally the next day in downtown Hess Village. At the same rally, downtown Ward 2 councillor Bob Bratina, who had previously opposed the West Harbour stadium, took the stage and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a WEST HARBOUR t-shirt underneath. "We're talking about the future," said Bratina. "Sprawl is the past."
That same day, Federal Sports Minister Gary Lunn issued a panicky denial, backtracking from the previous day's funding announcement and insisting that Ottawa's funding commitment was "not contingent upon the location of the stadium."
On August 8, two days before the Council vote on the stadium location, the OCOF campaign published a report summarizing the key themes that emerged fromthe thousands of public statements the campaign channeled: city building through spinoff investment and downtown revitalization; sustainability and accessibility to all Hamiltonians; a lasting legacy for future generations; and pride in a progressive reputation from showcasing a redeveloped waterfront. Citizens also expressed increasing frustration with the way in which the Ticats managed the debate.
The next day, after reading the writing on the wall, the Ticats formally withdrew from negotiations with the city over a new stadium, concluding, "We will play out our days at Ivor Wynne" stadium, their current site.
On August 10, the Committee of the Whole voted 12-3 in favour of the West Harbour. Two days later, full Council voted 10-6 (one Councillor reversed his vote and another attended who had missed the Committee meeting) to confirm the decision made two days previously.
At that decision, many Hamiltonians - including the organizers behind OCOF - heaved a sigh of relief. We were exhausted from all the campaigning and information dissemination and naively believed that now that the decision was finally made, the debate was over.
Unfortunately, the Ticats and their supporters did not quit working behind the scenes to undermine Council's resolve. Over the next several months, the City lurched between a number of increasingly desperate fallback locations - including a proposed stadium in Burlington - as the hard February 1, 2011 site confirmation deadline from the Pan Am Host corporation loomed.
It looked like all was lost. Council seemed prepared to walk away from a stadium altogether rather than confirm a site - even a site with overwhelming public support - without the support of the Ticats.
Into this void, the community voice rose once again, this time advocating for a small-scale community sized stadium to be built at the West Harbour and preserving the Pan Am redevelopment opportunity for Hamilton.
Citizen volunteers contacted Toronto 2015 CEO Ian Troop and asked him to clarify the host corporation's criteria for funding a stadium. Troop confirmed that a 6,000 seat community stadium was a viable proposal and clarified that the stadium was "not about providing a stadium for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. If that's part of a solution, terrific, but that's not our mandate."
Once again, in response to public pressure, Council turned toward the choice that put the City's objectives first.
Sensing that the opportunity to use public money for their own needs was slipping through their fingers, the Ticats relented and did an about-face in terms of their demands for a new stadium.
At the very last minute, after a call from Queen's Park to the newly-minted Mayor Bob Bratina (formerly the Ward 2 Councillor who had worn the WEST HARBOUR t-shirt to the rally) to resolve the impasse, the City and the Ticats finally settled on a partial rebuild of Ivor Wynne Stadium, the team's current home. This was in complete reversal in their previous stance that the inner city location was not economically viable.
From a revitalization perspective, the new plan offers limited potential for economic spinoff - in fact, it proposes to demolish an adjacent community stadium to make room for parking - and leaves the West Harbour property an unremediated brownfield, but Council was so desperate to close a stadium deal and satisfy the Ticats that they accepted it anyway.
It should be noted that, in the end, unable to turn a blind eye to the expressed wishes of the public, City Council passed a resolution as part of the stadium decision to speed up revitalization of the West Harbour site. While the location of the stadium will remain the same, the OCOF campaign successfully countered the notion that private interests should trump the public good.
The campaign managed to stop significant public dollars from going towards a sprawl-oriented development. It kept a strong focus on the issue of Hamilton's future and engaged thousands of citizens in a public debate some may have wished remained behind closed doors.
This experiment in civic engagement offers some lessons for would-be organizers:
Informal organizing allows speed and flexibility in an ad hoc campaign. There was never a formal organization behind OCOF, only a loose confederacy of volunteers who shared similar goals and kept each other informed of what we were doing so that we could coordinate our efforts. The website, the press conference, the panel discussion, the rally, live coverage of council meetings - they were all organized and carried out by different groups of individuals under a common purpose but without any organizational strictures.
Positivity and civility matter. A number of councillors expressed to me privately that they were impressed with the language used by OCOF supporters: the statements were positive, articulate and above all civil. In contrast, statements made in support of the Ticats tended to be more negative and fear-based.
Counter fear with facts. At every step of the campaign, OCOF and local independent media countered the Ticats' misinformation and spin with calm, evidenced-based analysis.
Transparency is a virtue. Against the kind of back-room politicking that leaves citizens out of the loop, we organized OCOF as an open campaign carried out in full public view. We published the full statements of the campaign's supporters and pressed local and provincial politicians to make public statements of their positions and intentions.
The other players will not stand still. Each time we thought we had the advantage, the Ticats would come up with another gambit to promote the East Mountain and weaken the case for the West Harbour. This meant we had to keep working constantly, not only to promote our vision of city building but also to address the team's steady stream of objections.
It's not over 'til it's over. Once City Council cast its "final" ratifying vote on August 12, the energy and enthusiasm that had propelled OCOF dissipated. However, the Ticats and their corporate, political supporters and professionally paid lobbyists kept plugging away. Even when we thought we had achieved our goal, we were clearly not in a position to let up in our efforts.
The Our City, Our Future campaign is an interesting case study of how citizens used alternative and social media to mobilize public support and directly engage decision makers. The public campaign was organized very quickly to achieve a broad reach and an impressive impact, especially given the financial resources and emotional community ties the Ticats were able to employ in promoting their agenda.
While the Ticats attempted to conflate the football team with the public interest, the OCOF campaign effectively separated the two and clearly communicated that the real public interest should take priority over private interests.
Finally, the richness and diversity of the comments posted to the OCOF website and shared with decision makers demonstrated that a public campaign can resonate strongly and achieve a broad consensus without resorting to negativity and fear-based campaigning.
Already the OCOF experience is having an influence: even now, a number of nascent citizen-led community building initiatives in Hamilton are developing around the same model of ad hoc organization, social media outreach and direct engagement.
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