Downtown making slow, sure gains

More businesses. More condos. A new attitude. Has downtown Hamilton turned a corner?

More businesses, more jobs, more people looking for a good restaurant

Rosemary and Steve Marsh have moved Business Insurance Services from Burlington to the downtown core, one of the small signs officials point to that Hamilton's core is on the mend. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Steve and Rosemary Marsh weren't prepared for the attention they got when they moved their Business Insurance Services office from Burlington to downtown Hamilton.

They were located on Plains Road East. Three weeks ago, they moved to 231 Main St. W. The office only has four full-time employees, but the day after Steve Marsh signed the lease, Mayor Bob Bratina called him.

"I said, 'We're just a small business,' " Marsh recalled. "But people seem excited that we came from Burlington. Everyone seems to be going to Burlington. There are a lot of great reasons to come to Hamilton."

The Marshes represent what could be called a slow but sure revitalization of Hamilton's beleaguered downtown.

After a number of false starts, many say the trend is changing. Vacant buildings are filling up, there are more jobs and Hamiltonians are starting to feel better about the core.

The Downtown Business Improvement Association gained 35 new members in 2011. Since January, executive director Kathy Drewitt said, there have been about 10 more, so "this year will blow last year out of the water." The International Village Business Improvement Association gained 17 new members last year.

Downtown vacancy rate falling

There are at least nine condo development projects happening downtown, representing a combined 300 to 500 potential multi-residential housing starts in the coming years, a city report says. At the end of 2011, that development was worth $104,334,600 in construction value. There were 330 new jobs created downtown last year.

The downtown office vacancy rate is creeping downward. The core has a little over five million square feet of office space. In 2009, 15 per cent (771,220 square feet) of that was vacant, compared with 12 per cent (618,555 square feet) in 2011.

Also, the value of construction downtown in 2011 increased about one-third over the year before. In 2011, there was more than $18.2 million in construction compared to $13.5 million in construction the year before.

That number is overshadowed by the more than $100 million in construction in 2009, but city figures show that was buoyed byseveral public-sector projects, including renovations to City Hall and the Lister Block.

But there's an element that's harder to measure — attitude. People are speaking fondly of the core and "there's an attitude change you can hear in people's voices,"said Richard Allen, director of the Renew Hamilton project.

"Change happens in small, incremental bites," Allen said. "If we can accept that, we'll see that we're turning a corner."

There are skeptics, said Neil Everson, Hamilton's director of economic development.

"You're always going to get people who see the glass as half empty, but there's a real buzz about the downtown core."

That's how the Marshes see it. Steve is a Hamilton native and former board member for the Burlington Economic Development Corporation. When he looked for new office space, the Hamilton office was the second place he saw.

"I don't know how you feel about Hamilton," his realtor said, "but I want to show you this place."

Hamilton is cheaper, said Steve. And Burlington lacked the right size space for their small operation.

"It was a big deal for us to make the move,"Rosemary said, "but it was blatantly the right decision."

McMaster bringing doctors, patients

Another victory for downtown is the McMaster Downtown Health Campus. The project will be located on the current site of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board education centre at 100 Main St. W.

Work will start later this year on the $85-million project, scheduled to open in 2014.The city issued a demolition permit last week for the school board building, erected in 1966.

The board's plan has been to move operations to its Crestwood location on the Mountain. But the board and the city have formed a joint task force to study ways to keep the board downtown, including the 250 employees who currently work at the Main Street centre. The task force meets again on June 18 to review options.

The McMaster project will be 195,000 square feet and have about 450 employees.

There will be about 4,000 medical students there, and 19,000 square feet will be used by the local health unit, said Andrea Farquhar, McMaster's assistant vice-president of public and government relations.

McMaster expects about 54,000 patient visits per year there, and doctors to serve 15,000 underserviced patients.

"We're bringing 450 employees," she said. "That's 450 people who will be looking for places to go for lunch or pick up their dry cleaning and other sorts of economic impact."

The design is nearly complete and the university has hired a project manager, Farquhar said.

Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr and another councillorinitiated the joint task force. He wants the board to stay downtown, but sings the praises of the McMaster project.

Not a boom, but 'darn close'

"It's very good for the downtown economy to have professionals milling about, having lunch and spending money," he said. "It's very good to have 54,000 visitors per year."

As for downtown's recent progress, "I don't want to call it a boom, but it's darn close."

Not everyone is as rosy about the progress. The community group Hamilton Citizens at City Hall (CATCH) published the article "Growth Down Sharply Last Year" on its website on April 22.

The article dissected a recent city report that showed the taxes collected downtown have climbed from $25.1 million in 2008 to $26.9 million last year, saying the number is not adjusted for inflation. (Everson counters that inflation has little impact on tax rates.)

CATCH monitors to see if the increased tax dollars spent on economic development bear fruit, said co-ordinator Don McLean of Stoney Creek.

The report doesn't show much progress downtown in terms of tax appeals and property reevaluation, McLean said.

Optimism 'can blind you at times'

"It doesn't mean revitalization is not proceeding," he said. "It means that it's proceeding at a slower pace than expected."

Optimism is important, McLean said, "but you can let it blind you at times.

"We have to keep our feet on the ground as we work our way through these things."

James Street North resident John Mokrycke, an architect, has had a downtown office since 1994. When he looks out his window, he said, he sees a difference.

"It's slow," he said. "Nothing happens fast in Hamilton. But it's a steady, positive momentum, and that's probably better."

This story is part of a CBC Hamilton series examining the state of downtown. The series runs until Thursday.