Back in 1982, when the Downtown Hamilton Business Improvement Area (BIA) was formed, the city’s image was all about by its Steeltown roots. And little wonder given that, at one time, Hamilton was producing almost half of Canada’s steel and the mills were the city’s largest employer. When the steel industry began to falter, so did the city, and no other neighbourhood felt a more direct hit than the downtown core.
Stores like Robinson’s, the Right House and Woolworths disappeared and Stelco vacated its offices inside the 26-storey Stelco Tower, which was part of the Jackson Square complex. When Lime Ridge Mall opened on the Mountain in 1981, the BIA formed to fight back. In the 35 years since then, the downtown has become a living example of how an area can re-emerge from the ashes. Where there were once less desirable business operations and bingo parlours, there are now unique, award winning new restaurants and trendy condos.
Today the BIA has 453 members and 173 property owners and is the largest of the 13 BIAs in Hamilton. “It didn’t happen overnight. A lot of people put a lot of effort into it,” says Downtown BIA executive director, Kerry Jarvi. Incentive programs were offered to pull businesses downtown and to actively recruit businesses to come to Hamilton, letting them know it was open for business. If anyone tries to tell you the downtown isn’t hopping, direct them to the list of events on the BIA’s website. Within one month King Lear was on the lineup at the Pearl Company, the music of Lori Yates filled Mills Hardware, The Comedy of Errors was at Theatre Aquarius, and Maroon 5 performed at the First Ontario Centre. Throw in a Bulldogs hockey game and some Haida art at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and you can see that whatever your tastes, there are plenty of opportunities to have a night on the town.
Jarvi has been with the organization for four years and points to King William Street as the prime example of the core’s rebirth. What was once a sleepy street is now lined with restaurants and cafes, from the Serve Ping Pong Bar and Lounge to The Baltimore House where trivia game nights reign. There’s also the Mezza Caffe, Thai Memory and Fsh and Chp where they promise ‘a nautical experience in Hamilton’s deep end.’
“Our focus is to make sure that people who come downtown have a positive experience, and lots to do,” says Jarvi. The core is also becoming a “work and live” place, she says, with the luxury condos at the Royal Connaught opening soon, to the artist’s apartments at Mills Hardware, an event and entertainment space for everything from bands to book launches.
Then there’s the Royal Brick Works on John South, which is being turned into ground floor commercial with residential above. It’s all in keeping with the BIA’s goal to make the downtown a destination spot
where you can live, have dinner, see a show and go out for dessert. “For us, one of the most exiting things has been to increase our residential intensity which puts more people on the street,” she notes.
It’s also a perfect spot for people who want a car-free lifestyle. When they want to get around, there’s the Sobi bike rental system, which has 750 bicycles and over 100 hubs all over the city.
Nothing speaks more to the downtown renaissance than the revitalization of Gore Park, which has been a historic part of the city and is being returned to its original glory. This will be the sixth year for the Gore Park summer promenade, happening every Tuesday to Friday from May to September 1st. The event includes food trucks, vendors, entertainment and games, including large-scale chess and checkers. Jarvi says they see a great mix of people, from office workers to children. “A family or a couple can come downtown, or women come for girl’s night. There’s something for everybody.”
by Denise Davy