Price Waterhouse, one of the Big Four global accounting firms, arrived in downtown Hamilton more than 60 years ago. Now it’s preparing to evacuate.

The company is known today as PricewaterhouseCoopers, or PwC for short. It checked into Hamilton’s oldest and most handsome skyscraper, the Pigott building, in 1951. The firm moved around in the years since, but always stayed in the core.

For the last two decades, PwC has had the first two floors of the mirrored tower at King and MacNab. About 100 people work for the company there. By next Labour Day, they will be reporting for duty in Oakville.

A thoroughly-modern six-storey glass box is rising there now, on Trafalgar Road near the GO station, just a few minutes from downtown Oakville. PwC will occupy half the building and has sign rights – look quickly and you might spot the firm’s logo from the QEW.

'We were tortured by this. It's like divorcing somebody...'—Raj Kothari, GTA managing partner, PwC

The move is a result of PwC merging its Mississauga and Hamilton offices, and it will have 425 working in the new building.

"We were tortured by this," says Raj Kothari, PwC’s managing partner for the Greater Toronto Area. "It’s like divorcing somebody...

"Hamilton is a wonderful city. It’s old Canada."

Everything new in Oakville

But in Oakville, everything will be new. LEED-certified "green" building, with natural light for everyone. And walking distance to the GO train.

"We didn’t need two offices," Kothari says. They wanted a location that works for both Hamilton and Mississauga employees, all of whom will move to the new office. This location will be a good deal handier for those just coming from Mississauga, but there are more of them.

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A new home for PricewaterhouseCoopers is under construction at Trafalgar Road and the QEW in Oakville. (First Gulf development)

Sometimes, Kothari says, the PwC staff living in the Hamilton area will be able to work from home. They will be visiting clients here. If they are taking a local client out for lunch, it will still be in Hamilton.

At one time, all of the Big Four accounting firms were in downtown Hamilton. But some years ago, Ernst & Young left for Mississauga and Deloitte left for a site on the 403 in Burlington.

With PwC’s departure, that leaves only KPMG. Last month, with whisky and charcuterie, the firm held a reception at its newly-renovated and expanded offices downtown, which serve as the hub for its Eastern Canada division.

KMPG declared that after 75 years in Hamilton, it was staying to be part of the revitalization of the core.

Some clients might want to switch

Surely PwC understands that Hamilton companies might want to move their business to a firm that’s located in the city.

"We are totally cognizant of that and we’d hate for that to happen," Kothari says. "We’ll do our darndest to make sure we service the hell out of our clients in Hamilton. We love Hamilton and will continue to support it in every way we can."

Still, there will be 100 PwC employees who won’t be doing weekday eating and shopping in downtown Hamilton any more. They’re more likely to be lunching in downtown Oakville, which is doing wonderfully these days.

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With the departure of PricewaterhouseCoopers, only one of the Big Four accountancy firms will be left in Hamilton. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

It’s a place where people want to live. The proof – they recently demolished the 42-year-old Tim Hortons in the Oakville core and are now marketing the Randall townhouses. Prices start at just shy of $2 million.

Glen Norton would love to see a little of that kind of action. He is Hamilton’s manager of urban renewal and the PwC news is discouraging.

"It hurts," he says. "Those are good paying jobs."

Big companies left town

A lot of big firms have vanished in recent decades from Hamilton – Procter & Gamble, Firestone, Westinghouse, International Harvester, the list goes on. So there are fewer big auditing assignments for the large accounting companies.

"I’m sure PwC has done its analysis, as accountants would," Norton says. "PwC made their own choice. So why wouldn’t clients here now make a choice too? They may say, ‘I’d like to have some Hamilton experience.’"

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PricewaterhouseCoopers has been at King and MacNab since the mirrored tower was built there some 20 years ago. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The focus in Hamilton now, Norton says, is revitalizing the core with the smaller companies, many in the creative sector. There’s been some success with that. "We’re a city of survivors," he says. "We keep going... This is not going to shake our spirit."

David Blanchard has bought and managed commercial space downtown for 35 years. He and his partners at Wilson Blanchard own many of the core’s biggest buildings, including the tower that PwC is leaving.

He’s angry about the defection.

"Why should anyone support these companies that leave Hamilton?" he says. "I take it personally. I don’t understand why a company abandons one of the biggest cities in the country to go out by the highway."

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca@PaulWilsonCBC 

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.