Commonwealth Games pitched as response to COVID-19, but councillors await more details

The Commonwealth Games committee says its focus to "completely solve the housing crisis" with zero impact on locals' tax levies will be Hamilton's answer to COVID-19 — but some councillors aren't convinced.

A promise for 3,000 new affordable apartments draw some councillors in, draws doubts from others

Hamilton city councillors await more details after hearing about the potential 2026 Commonwealth Games. (Rick Rycroft/Associated Press)

The Commonwealth Games committee says Hamilton hosting the 2026 games could be a monumental response to the economic aftermath of COVID-19 that could help solve the affordable housing crisis and could all be done with no impact on local taxes.

Some councillors were doubtful and concerned about lack of detailed information, financial and otherwise, with others attracted by the ambitious promises around affordable housing.

The general issues committee (GIC) received a presentation on Monday about a framework for the 2026 games bid.

PJ Mercanti from Carmen's Group, Graham Cubitt from Indwell, Brian MacPherson from Commonwealth Canada and David Grevemberg from Commonwealth Games Federation all presented a framework for a revised, scaled back plan to have Hamilton host the 2026, 11-day event from the end of July to the first week of August.

They stressed the games would be an "unprecedented" opportunity to act in unique circumstances, given the pandemic. The pitch is that the Commonwealth Games would help local businesses through an economic recovery while also engaging the community and raising spirits.

"We're not inviting a choice between games and basic human needs," Mercanti explained.

This presentation comes as Hamilton is being asked to pivot from a 2030 bid to 2026 at the request of the international Commonwealth Games Federation.

The 2030 bid was supposed to serve as a 100-year anniversary of the games, which started in Hamilton.

With many potential bidders for 2030 and few for 2026, Hamilton's bid committee, was given "an offer of exclusivity in crafting a 2026 pandemic recovery hosting plan," if it could secure government support in principle.

But with the presentation offering few details on the financial side of things, councillors have questions and doubts.

What would the 2026 games offer?

Most details for the 2026 games are still unknown and will remain that way until a multi-party agreement is established between various levels of government and the commonwealth groups.

But the presentation offers some glimpses.

The event would feature four fewer events, 900 fewer athletes and roughly 300 fewer coaches and team officials than the 2030 bid, which would save money. But it would also offer more paralympic options and an equal number of male and female-medalled events, in an attempt to be more equitable and diverse.

It would use venues that are already built in the city, many of which may not need renovations — another cost saving measure.

Hamilton was hoping to host the 2030 Commonwealth Games but may take on the 2026 games which are expected to be cheaper. (Dita Alangkara/The Associated Press)

Councillors want more info about 2026 games

One of the biggest promises is a commitment to build at least 3,000 affordable living apartments in the city that would be available to the public months after the games end.

Graham Cubitt of Indwell said they could be worth roughly $1 billion assuming that each apartment is valued at an average of $375,000, but it's unclear what the actual value of the properties would be and how many Hamilton can expect.

The presentation said: "Given the magnitude of the opportunity and of the need, our ambition should be nothing less than solving the housing crisis completely." 

The promise for affordable housing got the attention of some councillors, like Sam Merulla and Lloyd Ferguson, and the mayor, who said if the $1 billion figure was accurate, they would commit to the 2026 games.

The city of Hamilton has tried to remove homeless encampments like this one in front of the FirstOntario Centre. The 2026 Commonwealth Games says it can bring more affordable housing to the city. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The presentation also pledges to have more senior level government and private sector investment, no effect on the city's tax levy, no new capital funding requests for venues, no international bid costs and an event that is completed "under budget."

The games themselves have an estimated billion dollar price tag, which is down from a projected $1.425 billion price for the 2030 games. The city's estimated contribution for 2030 was forecasted between $250 million and $375 million.

But the presentation didn't confirm any budget figures or cost estimates.

That was a point of frustration for many councillors, including Brad Clark. 

Ward 9 (upper Stoney Creek) councillor Brad Clark had doubts about the 2026 Commonwealth Games plan. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

He's doubtful that tax levies won't be affected, looking for multiple ways to poke holes in that idea.

"I have a problem of being asked to sign something in principle," he said.

"We're asking 'Give me the data' .. and we're not getting it. I have real frustration with that."

Mayor Fred Eisenberger noted that the GIC would have to authorize city staff to assess the 2026 games proposal to figure out what's needed to pull them off. But the city clerk noted staff members are also working to reopen Hamilton during COVID-19, which means the city might need an external reviewer — which Clark says would affect the tax levy.

Despite not having budget information to present, the committee did say it had a cost overrun incorporated in its plan but say past games have run under budget.

Mixed reaction to 2026 presentation

Councillors offered mixed reactions to the presentation.

Coun. Tom Jackson said he felt the committee spent too long dismissing Hamilton, noting that he and his support for the games have been "kicked in the guts one too many times."

Meanwhile, Coun. Brenda Johnson doesn't support the games at all, noting that the Mount Hope Community Park is flooded and other infrastructure problems like cracked roads and sidewalks should take priority.

Merulla mocked anyone who wasn't considering this idea.

Public delegates also offered support and criticism.

The mayor said he preferred the 2030 games, but said if there more benefits to the 2026 games, he would support them instead.