It's time for Hamilton's downtown shops to stay open later to serve the area's many new residents — and help attract more of them.
That's the plea from Glen Norton, the manager of urban renewal in the city's planning and economic development department. He says with a host of new condo developments springing open in the next few years downtown, it’s time for businesses to keep their doors open later to help draw people into all those units.
Some downtown shop owners, however, see it the other way: They say they need more people downtown to justify staying open longer.
“Stores need to be open later hours,” Norton told CBC Hamilton. “They really need to make that leap of faith.”
'It’s a challenge for small businesses. You don’t have that mall traffic.' - Melanie Amato, Modify Your Closet owner
Right now, downtown Hamilton is a bit of a ghost town after 6 p.m. While many restaurants are open into the evening, most retail shops are closed. Jackson Square — downtown Hamilton’s largest shopping centre — shuts its doors in the evening, too.
There are some exceptions — Jackson Square’s theatre is open in the evening and Nations Fresh Foods grocery store stays open later, too. Now it’s time for other businesses to follow suit, Norton says.
“I do understand it’s a cost to them,” he said. “But I think things are changing in terms of how many people are downtown on evenings and weekends.”
So Norton is issuing a challenge to business owners — try staying open later for the next three or four months, through the summer and into the fall and see what happens. “Right now, they don’t know how much business they’re losing,” he said.
A challenge for small business
But that’s easier said than done, says Melanie Amato, owner of Modify Your Closet on King Street East. “I’d love to be open constantly — but right now, I don’t have the traffic to warrant staffing someone,” she said. “It’s a challenge for small businesses. You don’t have that mall traffic.”
And that’s the catch — which needs to happen first here? If businesses stay open later, it would help draw more people into the core. But businesses need those people to warrant staying open later and paying for more staff. “I think retail will come eventually when there are more people on the street after 5 p.m. — but we’re not there yet,” said Kathy Drewitt, executive director of the Downtown BIA. “But we’re very close.”
The city issued more than a billion dollars worth of building permits in 2013, and has 15 condos on tap for 2014. That’s 15 new buildings, mostly in the lower city and downtown core, and means upwards of 1,400 new units, the city says.
The Royal Connaught condos alone will have 700 units, and that translates to at least 1,000 people once it’s full, Norton says. The city is counting on migration from the GTA to fill some of those units, and businesses being open later would help, he says.
But getting a uniform plan in place to make that work is a necessity, Amato says. She recommends the city provide incentives to businesses on a large scale to stay open later, and implement some kind of pilot project to try it out – likely on Fridays. “It’s just like the city determining what the cityscape should look like,” she said.
Either way, making it easier for more people to start shopping downtown should be a priority, she says. “So many people would come downtown to shop — but they work,” she said.
“And for right now, nothing is open after that.”