Failed Cafe Oranje Bid for Lister Space Highlights Process Issues

We hope that by shining a light on the issues that we had, we can prevent another small business from going through what we did, by encouraging City staff to develop procedures, deadlines and accountability to those procedures.

By Amy Gringhuis and Christopher Godwaldt
Published January 25, 2013

The media exposure - including an article (subscription required) on YourHamiltonBiz and an interview with Bill Kelly (January 17, 2013, Hour 2) on AM 900 CHML - on the failed bid to get Café Oranje into the Lister Block isn't about the fact that we didn't get the space.

It's not sour grapes (or "sour crepes", as Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr put it), and we certainly have no ill feelings towards the successful candidate, Mezza Cafe. We are extremely happy for them and we're even happier that the Lister Block is going to get a ground floor retail tenant...finally.

When we were contacted by several media outlets, after tweeting about the outcome of our offer on the space, our intention was simply to shine a light on the experience we've had over the past year and a half in trying to get answers and ultimately a decision on who they wanted to lease the space to.

We also hope that by shining a light on the issues that we had, we can prevent another small business from going through what we did, by encouraging City staff to develop procedures, deadlines and accountability to those procedures.


We first contacted the city in June of 2011 to express our interest in leasing a space in the Lister block at which time we were told that they would be accepting expression of interest applications in July 2011 and that we were to watch the city of Hamilton procurement website where this would be posted.

July came and went with nothing posted and when we followed up with the city, what followed was a series of e-mails back and forth directing us to at least 5 different people within the city nearly all of who gave us different time-lines on when they would be accepting bids on the space. We were told Christmas or early 2012.

In February, we were told it would be two to three more months (which would put us into April or May 2012). With no further information forthcoming, we were finally contacted by the facilities department in early April, 2012 and told that we were on the list of interested parties looking to lease space in the Lister.

In the meantime, office workers and Tourism Hamilton took their place occupying their respective spaces and the three publicly available spaces sat empty.

The city retained the services of an external Realtor to broker the spaces, and even then there was confusion about whether we would be working directly with the Facilities Department or with the Realtor.

Once that was cleared up, our initial offer was presented to the city in late May, in time for the first deadline of June 1, 2012.

When our first offer expired with no response from the city, we had to re-submit our bid. This happened three times (due to the expiration of each while deadlines established by staff came and went) and six months later, the city finally replied asking for a re-write of our offer to accommodate several new terms relating to the lease.

We were asked for a new offer within a couple weeks, and we pushed back seeking more time to do our research, price out the new lease terms and re-write the offer, and that offer was presented to city staff on January 4, 2013, a full one and a half years after the first Expression of Interest was supposed to be public.

To say that we were frustrated with the 'process' would be an understatement. At several points we considered walking away, but each time we were given renewed hope that the process was wrapping up and that the decision was forth-coming. So we persevered, hoping that the time and energy we had already invested would yield a positive outcome.

Unacceptable Bid?

We've read with interest the media coverage of our story and the comments from city staff, hoping to gain some insight into why this was such a painfully drawn-out and confusing process.

Instead, what we read was a quote from Rom D'Angelo, Director of Community Facilities and Capital Programs, who claimed that after they opened the spaces up for bids, "it was agreed that none of the offers were acceptable, as submitted, and not enough offers were received."

This came as a surprise to us, since we had agreed to all of the terms in the listing with the exception of their timeline. If our offer wasn't 'acceptable', why not let us know or try to negotiate with us?

Perhaps the truth was that they simply didn't have a competitive bid and wanted to draw out the process until they could attract another interested party to pit against us in an effort to drive up the lease price. If the successful bidder hadn't come along, perhaps we'd still be waiting.

We hope to get some clarity when staff presents their report to council next month, and we hope that council scrutiny will result in the implementation of transparent processes and accountability to imposed deadlines. It's a tall order but we're still hopeful.

We do want to emphasize that it definitely hasn't all been negative for us and for Café Oranje. Through this process we've met some really amazing people who work for the City of Hamilton: people who are passionate about growing this city's business community; people who believed in our business plan, encouraged us and did their best to facilitate progress.

Now that we've said our piece and hopefully made the road less rocky for those who may come after us, we are happy and grateful to move on. We've seen the process through, the decision has been made and we are truly happy for the Lister Block's new tenant. Now our focus has turned to finding another location and setting up shop.

Amy Gringhuis and Christopher Godwaldt are the owners of Café Oranje, a Dutch-styled coffee house planned to open in Hamilton.


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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:52:59

We went through a similar drawn out process when we investigated opening a hostel in Hamilton 6 years ago.

We were told that we had to wait because of a pending zoning bylaw rewrite. They were not accepting applications for bed and breakfasts or rooming homes until the rewrite was completed(hostels don't exist in current zoning laws).

We waited a couple of months, and got the same answer. A few months more - same answer. In the end, after almost two years of researching and being told "just wait", we gave up.

As far as I can tell, there is still no process in place. The owners of HGH had to take the unofficial advice of staffers to "just do it" and deal with the fallout later, because there's no possible way to do it correctly.

In the end, I opened a bike shop because you don't need permission from the city to do that. I opened a month after making the decision.

Just another of multitudes of examples of what's holding us back.

Comment edited by seancb on 2013-01-25 11:08:07

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By TnT (registered) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 19:17:57 in reply to Comment 85504

Can’t agree more with Sean. It gets exhausting ramming the square peg into the round hole time and again. The last bit about meeting fantastic people at city hall (Councillor Farr among them) is true. There are loads of enthusiastic and cheerful people, but none of them seem to wield any power. It seems the people who make the decisions are ones you never even get to see, or speak to. If I was a fixer and spent all my time at city hall, maybe I could figure it out, but it shouldn’t be so complicated. What saved us in the end was massive public awareness, political will and perhaps the fact Santucci used up all the legal money they had for fighting this (kidding, sort of).

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 15:15:05 in reply to Comment 85504

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By D. Shields (registered) | Posted January 26, 2013 at 11:31:53 in reply to Comment 85535

From Not scaring the Hell out of future investment in this City.

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By uh (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2013 at 05:42:53 in reply to Comment 85535

Holding us back from being known as "hostel city" or perhaps "Hostelton".

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 19:16:45 in reply to Comment 85535

From seeing more creative and unique businesses spring up.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2013 at 15:17:53 in reply to Comment 85535

From attracting more residents, employees, employers and small businesses so that we can grow our tax base and head down a road toward being able to afford our current infrastructure costs without raising taxes.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted January 26, 2013 at 22:21:28 in reply to Comment 85536

We are doing all of that Sean. In fact in light of the global economy and considering we are not a resourced based economy we aren't doing too badly in Hamilton. House prices are rising indicating the gentrification many people are asking for is still happening. Many new businesses and developments are taking place, perhaps not at the rate some would wish but it is forward movement. The "renaissance" of James, Locke and Ottawa continues unabated. The Supercrawl is getting bigger and bigger. We prevented a suburban stadium from being built. All pretty good no?

What we aren't doing very well is keeping up with our social service needs, with a ~$3 million dollar shortfall needing to be covered. We have too many people addicted to drugs and living in poverty. We have two steel mills that continue to pollute our city and take up some of the most valuable real estate and only one of them is arguably of any use to the entire city anymore.

We have some real problems no doubt, and this forum can be a great place to discuss them. Some of the glass-is-half-empty laments about predictably divisive progressive issues can get a little tiresome though. This city needs change but what it needs more is facilitation. I am unable to escape the feeling that this city is the way it is because many people who live here seem to like it just fine or simply do not give a shit. There is a chasm between the more "progressive" and "conservative" views (I use those labels loosely, I am not a fan of labels but those ones suit my point) in this city. The level of polarized-entrenched-bickering in this city is truly staggering.

If we are to see a significant culture change in this city that chasm needs to close and we need to start discussing the real problems, the life blood problems (literally and figuratively) that this city has. Getting your knickers in a knot over things like which way traffic is flowing, while noble, is the epitome of missing the forest for the trees. Combined with a condescending dismissal of all opinions contrary to your own it becomes counterproductive.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2013 at 18:49:39 in reply to Comment 85615

Should I assume that your choice to finish your condescending rant with an accusation of condescension is a stab at irony?

I write under my own name, whether it's an article, a blog post or a comment. I am clear about my opinions, and they are quite varied, going well beyond "direction of traffic". I search for evidence and present the sources I find. I have lots of ideas, I love reading others' ideas, and I love discussing all of them.

I'm frankly quite tired of you repeatedly calling me out by name, accusing me of being condescending, accusing me of deliberately hiding facts, accusing me of focusing on too few issues (and not what you deem to be the "right" issues). It's quite easy to launch these attacks from behind an anonymous pseudonym.

All of the people who write articles here take ownership of their words. People such as Gary Santucci, Tim and Tanya from HGH, Gary Buttrum and countless others who are doing great things for this city write comments under their own names. Yet we have to tolerate accusations from anonymous cowards who have lots to say about why we are wrong, or who nitpick about our writing style or tone. Meanwhile we have no idea who they are, what their motivations are, or why they don't offer a few solutions of their own.

I'm sure you must have some good ideas. Why are you afraid to put your name to them? Why not write up an article for this site? It can only exist through the contributions of community volunteers.

I am happy to continue discussion of the city's ups and downs with you once you are brave enough to put your name behind your words. If you won't own your comments in a public forum, the door to my shop is always open and we can have a conversation face to face.

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By That Sucks (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:00:56

This was a great article, and honestly not a surprise unfortunately. Our city is notorious for stories like this which is honestly just sad. The fact that there is so little transparency is what bothers me most with our government. I wish you guys luck in finding a new location, and hope the process goes a little smoother this time around.

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By jay (registered) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:04:54

I am happy that you two are speaking out. its important people know what happen throughout your journey. the cafe is in my thoughts! make sure to keep pushing through... i cant wait to sit and have a cup of coffee and celebrate your grand opening.

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By Gary Santucci (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:12:50

Cafe Oranje, you are now officially added to the list in the "Field of Broken Dreams". You can see that following the "process" or fighting the "process" produces the same result. Decisions are made behind closed doors on whatever criteria they wish to apply.

Gary Santucci
The Pearl Company

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By it's a conspiracy! (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2013 at 05:43:42 in reply to Comment 85507

Yes, the city is running a massive conspiracy to keep small businesses from opening. We're through the looking glass here people...

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By Gary Santucci (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2013 at 20:25:49 in reply to Comment 85566

Conspiracy of Bureaucratic indifference.

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By sure thing, bud (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2013 at 08:16:50 in reply to Comment 85611

Sure thing. Hey, before I forget, I found your tin foil hat blowing down the street. We'll have to arrange a meet to get it back to you.

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By AndreaC (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:13:25

My husband recently opened a business on King William. There was a seemingly user-friendly front-office process to get our application submitted, and promises that it was a straightforward application and there should be no issue with our desired opening date. However, in practice the process was flawed and we couldn't get adequate responses to our questions. What saved us was awesome effort by Maureen in Councillor Farr's office. She got on the phone two different times for us, and we had the answer in a day. We were very thankful to her and to our councillor.

However, the fact remains that it is a broken process. It shouldn't take heroic effort. There should be process steps, with service level agreements, and consequences for when deadlines are breached.

I came out of the process certain that there is huge opportunity for process improvement and cost savings at city hall. And also certain that this sort of thing is costing the city business investment. We were told by the BIA that there is a backlog of 400 business license applications.

In conclusion, we looked into the Lister Block as well, although we never got as far as Cafe Oranje. We were discourage long before we considered putting in an offer.

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By Colony Collapse (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:21:37

IMHO, Hamilton has always been better at marketing itself as business-friendly than actually being business-friendly. It wouldn't shock me to learn that they were still using carbon copies.

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By Cynic (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 12:23:54 in reply to Comment 85510

Come on Hamilton is really business friendly. You just don't understand what business is.

Business is NOT providing amenities for residents of downtown, or 'mom and pop' stores.

Business is ploughing over farm land to build huge factories for 10 dollar an hour jobs, that no one can get to.

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By 1234 (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 12:33:10

I just wanted to add myself to the list. I would argue that the list of potential small enterprise entrepreneur that have creative ideas out number the bigger and more influential delvelopers. This potential, if ever realized, would cause a critical mass that would solve many of our unjust issues in this city as outlined in articles on this site.
Unfortunately we can never realize this potential. From the evidence that is out in the field. It does seem that much of our municipal legislation and the bureaucrats that uphold these rules are disconnected from this point of view.
I not sure what the answer is. I know that we are all out here in the city. Together we could make a compelling force and realize our potential.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2013 at 12:39:06

This is a huge problem. The city will bend over backwards for the pretty pictures shown to them by "developers" selling condo dreams, office parks and other major projects. Most of the time these are just ideas brought forth by speculators hoping for a future cash-out.

The problem is, none of these big projects will ever come to fruition unless they can be filled with people and businesses. If the city never gets around to fostering organic growth, making it easy to live and open small businesses here, the big developments can never succeed.

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By no (registered) | Posted January 26, 2013 at 05:45:58 in reply to Comment 85517

So let's all get in a time machine and move back to the 1950s, right? Tons of small business then. Oh and maybe we can make our city fathers think about trashing cars so that the 2013-x of that timeline will only have bikes, cars that spew gold as exhaust, and Hamilton is the seat of the country.

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By Gary Santucci (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 13:19:19

Small business entrepreneurs are perhaps the most positive and engaged citizens in our community, choosing to live, invest and create jobs in our City. We are the "Rodney Dangerfields" of the Hamilton economy. When you point out issues and problems with their "processes" they give you the cold shoulder and red flag you. The public brands us as whiners and the councillors never stand up for you in public. What was that quote by the former news anchor for global TV, Peter Trueman; "that's not news, that's reality"

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By no conspiracy (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2013 at 13:01:15 in reply to Comment 85523

There's no conspiracy here. Is it sour grapes about following the rules?

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By AndreaC (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 14:25:50

The answer is that we elect people who are actively plugged in to the community, all of the community, not just a few big investors.

People who understand 1. how to listen to community ideas 2. importance of residential development downtown & the connection of liveable spaces to organic residential & business growth. 3. the importance of using MODERN business practice to run city services i.e. document & publish the process, create, measure and report on service level agreements. Stop work that is adding no value (i.e. useless bureaucracy). Its called "voice of the customer". Modern businesses do it, or close shop. Government does not do it, because they are relentlessly trying to increase revenue rather than realize savings.

In summary, stop electing dinosaurs, Hamilton.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2013 at 16:19:35 in reply to Comment 85528

That only works if those councilors are willing to start busting heads in city staff. Our elected councilmen have very little to do with these decisions - they have a complicated committee-based interface with manager Chris Murray who really actually manages the boots-on-the-ground staff in charge of this sort of process.

And of course, Council tries to keep this relationship amicable for the sake of being able to get anything done... but sometimes I wonder if things wouldn't go better if there weren't more ogres in the council. Well, ogres on our side of council.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 15:19:04

Well at least you avoided paying one of the highest SF rates in the city. Nice location and all, but pricey. A diiferent location may provide you with as much exposure and better financials.

Comment edited by Kiely on 2013-01-25 15:19:41

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 15:47:17

So sorry that you were so hindered and impeded.
Just goes to show how 'Open for business' the city truly is.
Just think all that lost revenue from vacant space most likely would have
Been mitigated by occupancy at a slightly lesser amount.
What a waste.
Respect to you for wanting to play an important role and encourage business
To utilize adaptive re-use of Heritage buildings.
Will look forward to watching you speak with council on this matter in the future.

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By stan (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2013 at 19:22:04

This is a labour and management problem. We saw this in Dialogue Partners, in the recent firing of 20 plus public works employees - and you know to get fired they must have done something REALLY bad - and in examples like this. The civic league recently proposed to take a hard look at salaries. But maybe that's not the right approach. Maybe the real focus should be on how people are hired, assessed, and penalized for incompetence. I expect the author are totally right that there is a large segment of employees at the city that are committed and capable - but also a large segment of deadwood who do nothing and are the direct causes of this kind of incompetence, and who cannot be fired because the union protects them.

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By stan (anonymous) | Posted January 28, 2013 at 21:53:43 in reply to Comment 85554

in the most recent story, 29 public works staff have been fired for negligence. The city hired private investigators to randomly follow workers. Almost every worker followed would work an hour a day, selling or dumping their loads of asphalt, clocking in full days of work.

CUPE is likely to grieve the firings.

This is why the city operates the way it does. It has nothing to do with council.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2013 at 08:10:55

Stan just a query, if you work for management, then you have no union protection, right?

I feel unions are important, as unorganzied workers can find themselves terminated, just because someone does not like you. If you do not have money for a lawyer, to sue for wrongful dismissal, you are left with only the Ministry of Labour process, which in a lot cases, you get no justice.

If management is the overseerer, then why is it that in most cases, they are never terminated, they are protected by the elite in power and labour is blamed for their mistakes and incompetence.

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By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted January 26, 2013 at 20:50:35

the only way this is going to change is by shining bright lights on these issues every single time it happens and getting our elected officials to give staff and the rules they operate under a big giant enema and press the reset button.

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By Hamilton Civic League (anonymous) | Posted January 28, 2013 at 15:17:18

Small businesses are the solution! Small businesses survive by adapting quickly to changing market conditions and they generate the type of jobs that are located near our homes. They occupy small sites and therefore can reduce or eliminate our empty storefronts. They typically ask little or nothing of government and simply need them to stay out of our way. Unlike big business, when a small business fails, only a small number of individuals are affected. If I had to choose one big business employing 200 people or 100 small businesses each employing 2, my choice would be very clear. Of course, having both would be nice, but not if we all must subsidize big business.

The City prefers to prioritze hitting home runs by attempting to attract businesses that require hundreds of employees and a very large footprint. In addition to the wages paid to City Staff to attract big business, we offer cheap land, discounted development charges, transportation guarantees, property tax reductions and more. All of this is subsidized by the tax payer; many of whom operate small businesses.

The problems identified above by RTH contributors will not be resolved until local government is held accountable. Accountability belongs to our elected officials and City management. Let's not allow them to deflect the responsibility to frontline City employees.

I would like to see the major theme for the 2014 municipal election address the issue of accountability, however we do not need to wait until then to begin to hold senior management accountable today. Please attend a Hamilton Civic League meeting and contribute to a plan to hold local government accountable at every level. #Accountability2014

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted February 14, 2013 at 08:06:16

“There is a right time and a wrong time to increase fees.” - Terry Whitehead

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