Hamilton artists leading downtown's rebirth

The City of Hamilton's downtown employment statistics survey shows there are 330 new creative jobs downtown. Christoph Benfey has one of them.

Lower rents, creative culture draw hundreds of jobs, survey shows

Photographer Christoph Benfey, at his Ferguson Avenue South studio, represents one of 320 new creative jobs in downtown Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Christoph Benfey never thought he'd find himself in downtown Hamilton. Now he can't imagine being anywhere else.

The photographer and videographer used to be based in Toronto. Now he owns Low Key Studio, a studio and gallery located on Ferguson Avenue South in a spacious old building filled with natural light and hardwood floors.

The City of Hamilton's downtown employment statistics survey shows that 320 of the 330 new jobs downtown in 2011 were in creative industries. Benfey was one of them.

The 26-year-old opened a studio in Hamilton with girlfriend and business partner Katie Harrison because of cheaper overhead costs and a more supportive arts community, he said.

"I pay a fraction of the money to operate a studio here as I would in Toronto," Benfey said. "Right from the get-go, that makes it easier to stay afloat."

Businesses across Hamilton are surveyed each year to compile the annual report of employment statistics, said Glen Norton, manager of urban renewal in the city's planning and economic development department.

The past year saw downtown jobs decline in government, manufacturing, finance, insurance and real estate. Every other sector — including education, health and non-profit — saw an increase.

The creative industries accounted for 1,685 jobs downtown in 2010. In 2011, that grew to 2,005.

The city's definition of "creative industries" includes designers, artists and web developers, Norton said.

Among the highlights:

  • Pipeline Studios, which moved from Oakville to Hamilton in 2011, brought 100 new jobs downtown.
  • Huminah Huminah, a Halifax-based animation company, contributed 15 jobs to downtown.
  • Chuck Gammage, a formerly Toronto-based firm, brought 10 new jobs.

The animation companies significantly buoyed the numbers, Norton said. His office has spent the last two years targeting creative firms in Toronto and pitching the advantages of moving to Hamilton.

"We tell them that we have lower rents, lower prices to buy, and a lower cost of living," Norton said. "If you're making $50,000, it's tough to buy a home in Toronto. You can buy a home with that in Hamilton."

'A progression, not a spike'

Lower overhead costs seem to be a big motivator for creative industries, said Jeremy Freiburger of CoBALT Connects, a non-profit organization that connects creative businesses around Hamilton.

Freiburger has also noticed the growing downtown creative community. The job increase is "a progression, not a spike," he said.

Some of the new arrivals are from Toronto. Some are relocating from other parts of Hamilton, because "they see that the environment downtown is changing," Freiburger said.

Benfey came to Hamilton two years ago to do carpentry for a local condo developer. When his contract ended, he decided to stay. He opened his studio in October 2011.

In Toronto, he rented space in someone else's studio three times a month. That cost as much as the monthly rent for his entire studio in Hamilton.

The creative culture is attractive too, Benfey said. Hamilton artists use social media to promote each other, while Toronto is "cutthroat."

Most clients from out of town

"I've definitely met a lot of artists who have come here not just from Toronto, but from all over the place," said Benfey.

Most of Benfey and Harrison's current clients are from out of town. He brings most of them to Hamilton for shoots. Half of the studio is a gallery where he and Harrison host artwork and photography by other local artists.

One day, they'd like to add staff. They also plan to host makeup artists and stylists.

Freiburger sees the artistic movement as one of the keys to downtown's revitalization. The popularity of the Art Crawl, he said, is evidence of that.

"We've gone through tough times. Whether those are over, I don't know. But the creative and cultural community has come together and gotten better at what we are."

This is the second story in a four-part series by CBC Hamilton on downtown's revitalization. The first story looked at Downtown making slow, sure gains.