Friday, December 31, 2010

Going National...

I'm not a television watcher, per se. So please excuse me for coming late to the party.

Last night I was channel surfing and came across CBC's 'The National: At Issue'. It was their 'Your Questions' edition, something they do periodically.

There are two segments. The stuff that had me interested begins about half-way through the first segment, found here. Granted, almost all the focus is on national politics, but there are some nice moments worth watching, regardless.

And now, amongst the surreal, something whimsical

As we've had the introduction of Aldershot as a possible Hamilton Ti-Cat stadium, and as I love to ponder 'alternative scenarios', I got to thinking about how differently this entire PanAm Games Stadium Site Selection Process might have unfolded on another timeline. So here's my contribution to giving us all some opportunities to generate some relief from the stress and strain from this continued fiasco. (I'm posing this question partially as a distraction, but partially to see how various adherents to various sites rework their thinking. Consider it a teeny-tiny test.)

Imagine if you will, that instead of Downtown Hamilton having been left to languish by its City Council stewards for a quarter-century, it had been maintained. Developed. In fact, it's thriving.

Ditto for West Harbour.

And the Aberdeen and Longwood area, too. (Everything underway now and more, was accomplished much earlier.)

So; here we are on this other timeline, looking at finding a site for the 2015 PanAm Games stadium (and for the Ti-Cats, too)...

...what do you feel are the best options for a location? (And why?)

Why I Do What I Do

This week I was fortunate to be reminded of a couple of online community efforts by way of an article on Raise the Hammer, 'Meeting to Re-Think Barton-Tiffany Land Use'.

North End Neighbours has this as part of its mission statement:

"The NEN mission is to advance the social, physical, and cultural interests of the residents of our community, through the identification and research of issues affecting our community, the education of residents and the promotion of their active involvement in the democratic process with civic and provincial governments, to ensure that the interests of our community are protected."

Rethink Barton Tiffany declares this:

"The West Harbour stadium debate played out in Council chambers and in meetings with the Ticats and Pan Am representatives, but what about the voice of Hamiltonians?
Hamiltonians need to have a say in the development of our city and it’s neighbourhoods."

Added into the mix were some great email and chat exchanges as well as a few 'testy' exchanges on Raise the Hammer...most of the energy for these posts coming as a result of the email and chat exchanges, feeling a little needful to examine and re-state my core beliefs as yammered-on about here.

Here's what rose to the surface:

-There is a longstanding 'Hamilton Can't Do' mindset, a malaise that impacts just about every exchange, each interlude had by those affected by this condition. Many are entirely unaware of their affliction. I'm hoping to have a very special guest columnist presenting his thoughts on this sometime soon.

-There is a strange dichotomy going on regarding how many people view elected officials in local governance. On the one hand, there's an innate (and growing) tendency to demonize Councillors, to automatically assume the worst. On the other hand, sizable amounts of energy are being generated towards discussion of local governance issues, almost pre-cursors to 'taking back the night', if you will. What strikes me as most fascinating is that people don't seem to be willing to (or maybe 'capable' of) make the leap to understanding that the next step is not to generate most articles, more editorials, more comments, more typed rage...but to actually change the relationship we have with our Councillors. Because they're the ones who are charged with making decisions, putting actions in motions, not us. They're our agents, they work for us...and yet there seems to be this fundamental disconnect going on where our own empowerment is concerned. (Yes, this is worthy of a slot on 'In Treatment'. Or a Dr. Phil feature.)

-Declaiming on message boards and in the Comments section at The Spec is fine and good, but to assume that Councillors sit and read these online offerings and are affected by some kind of force that's been created... Oi vey. The first misstep here is to assume that anyone in this time of shifting social networking/new media/Internet paradigms...has either the time or the inclination to both read and assign a high currency to this material. My belief is they don't. In fact, in a decidedly cynical moment, I opined privately that 'Politicians in the main do not value to the max what the public says...other than when polling is involved.' Within the current system we've constructed, politicians do 'listen' to their constituents, but as it stands now, they're more inclined to 'govern' according to their own consciences, their own convictions, their own sense of propriety.

The second misstep is a fascinating tendency of online commenters (within certain interest groups) to believe that because they're there commenting, because they've felt sufficiently impassioned to take the time to type out their feelings on a particular subject, that the process is afforded some element of seriousness or status...or potential impact. For the most part, they're entirely misguided.

I'm reluctant to bring the personal into the political, but this is relevant: some years back, when IRC held sway online, I entered into a choice selection of 'incidents' regarding potential 'partners'. One in particular spun my head, caught me up short, had me staring into the distance, straining to understand. This credo resulted:

'It ain't real until you kiss 'em.'

I am a wholehearted supporter of the the Internet as a means to increase dialogue, get people interacting regarding what's going on around generally elevate their participation in improving our communal Quality of Life.

But it is not a 'be-all and end-all'.

Just as the telephone didn't change the world in an of itself, the Internet, as much as it's become entrenched in our lives, as affixed as we are to it, is not a solution in and of itself.

We still need to be active.

We need, to paraphrase my credo, to 'make it real and kiss 'em.'

Because typing words by way of a keyboard, 'up-voting' and 'down-voting', stepping up onto the electronic soapbox and letting righteous-indignation hold sway, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how well-crafted shouldn't be seen as the epitome of the process. No matter how good -and conveniently so- it feels.

-Lastly, it's been made abundantly clear that Hamilton needs a new force in 'new-media community-building'. A new site, a new voice, a new arena for civic change.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An open letter to Wards 5, 9, 10 and 11 Councillors

Subject: The PanAm Games Stadium Site Selection Debacle and Its Effects on the Municipal Id

I was pretty unhappy with how the stadium became (by dint of default-by-way-of-apathy?) the Number One Election Issue this year. Putting aside Mainstream Media's role in defining the parameters of governance and of wishing there'd been a much stronger push by incumbents to take firm stances on far more substantive -and pressing- issues, what made me the most unhappy was that this wishy-washy, soap-operaish situation crept into the collective consciousness of Hamiltonians, took root and added to the long-festering mindset of 'Hamilton Can't Do'.

Watching the recent developments regarding Aldershot, and the resultant talk, the message board activity, the commenting on The Spec's site, my 'unhappiness' has been cranked up to 'concerned'. Hence this letter.

While there might not be much any of you can do to magically 'fix' this stadium situation, in the spirit of my wanting to find ways to increase the relationship of engagement between the citizenry and their elected representatives, I suggest that there is something you can do, something that could be vital to Hamilton moving forward...although it's admittedly not as 'flashy' as effecting a last-minute, workable solution to the aforementioned fiasco:

Town halls should be held. Right now.

Throughout the entire city to be sure, but as I am a 'Cricker', most of my encouragement would be towards the four of you having them.

Generating clarity, c
learing the air, establishing the facts, taking back ownership of the process...providing much-needed context.

Having town-halls wouldn't be 'about' The PanAm Games Stadium Site Selection Process. They would be about clearing the air, about restoring faith in Council, about cancelling out the negativity that everything surrounding the issue has added to our legacy 'Hamilton Can't Do' malaise. They'd be about reassuring residents that this fumbled process is not a bellwether. They'd be about restoring confidence.

Otherwise, this interlude will undoubtedly poison future efforts to move forward, no matter how well-founded, no matter how well thought out they might end up being.

P.S. As for simply 'letting it go', waiting for it all to just blow over, therefore relieving Hamiltonians of further aggravation... I wouldn't even know where to start with that notion.

Continuing with the 'Hamilton' theme: 'Only in Aldershot you say?'

You should know that while it might appear that I yammer-on into a closed (and tiny room)...the mere absence of comments could reasonably lead you to this presumption...that I do not in fact function in a vacuum. Many of my editorial thrusts result from conversations I have with people of position, people with far more perspective than I possess, people with much better equipped cranial capacities. I'm just sayin'...

Today I was asked how I felt about the whole 'Ti-Cats in Aldershot' sub-plot of this PanAm Games Stadium Site Selection Process Soap Opera. Here's the gist of what I had to say:

"Not that 'I'm not a 'Cats fan', but that what an owner and another business person do re: their own business- and commerce-based desires and needs is not something worthy of investing energy in. This isn't a 'City of Hamilton' issue, no matter how much those who believe it is, want to wrap it up that way.

Would it be sad if the 'Cats relocated to Aldershot?


Why should it be? The Buffalo Bills play in Orchard Park, and both the New York Jets and Giants play in nearby East Rutherford, New Jersey. And it's not like we're talking about a stadium in Grimsby. Or Rockton. Or Caledonia. Aldershot is, remember, right next to Hamilton. The kerfuffle over this possibility is mostly being produced by Hamilton fans uneasy ('in a snit-fit') over the prospect of Ti-Cats games being anywhere other than Ivor Wynne Stadium...and worse, outside the city.

But let's strain for a little more context here, shall we?

Imagine for a second that there was no PanAm Games Stadium Site Selection issue.

Imagine instead that Bob Young had been investigating options for a stadium for a while now.

And that the City was not in a position to do anything 'for' the 'Cats, that fiduciary logic held sway.

Imagine then, that this Aldershot option was what Bob Young wanted. It was the chosen site for a new stadium for the Hamilton Ti-Cats.

Would it be as much an issue?

In the words of a feline philosopher, "I think not, baby pupplatina."

You know, what we have here isn't 'failure to communicate'.
What we have here is conflation.
Conflation of issues.
The issue of the City's need to get a PanAm Games stadium built.
The issue of the 'Cats' need for a better revenue-streaming model.
And confusion.
And a huge amount of misinformation and mis-conception, etc that the public has been feeding off, getting wound up by, bent out of shape over.
Poisoned by."

I provided this answer to the questioner, but immediately upon having provided it, began tapping the keyboard with a lot more fervor.

"What concerns me so much more than 'The Aldershot Gambit', and it should concern City Council, is that this entire 'interlude' is adding to the self-perception on the part of the average Hamiltonian that we cannot get anything done.

RIght or wrong, the PanAm Games Stadium Site Selection having been renamed the 'We're Going to Lose Our Beloved Ti-Cats Debacle' front-and-center with Hamiltonians.

Whether or not they are 'Cats fans, whether or not they are emotionally-attached to the city, whether or not they live their lives as they choose and really aren't affected by just about anything City Council decides...keeping in mind that quite often, no matter how 'important' our tasks and responsibilities are, they don't play any part in most people's lives, period...the fact remains that this 'interlude' has added an enormous amount of 'Can't Do' energy to the consciousness of Hamiltonians.

And the entity they will point to, the construct they'll aim their anger and frustration and enmity towards is City Council.

Is this the kind of mindset Councillors want when trying to fashion a better way for Hamiltonians?

Is this the kind of 'team spirit' Councillors want moving through the hearts and souls and minds of their constituents when attempting to rejuvenate, re-vitalize, re-invent the City? To effectively resurrect it? (Understanding that for some residents of the city, they're disinterested in these goals. What matters is what's ten feet in front of them and no farther.)

Because this 'stuff' only fuels the 'Us vs Them' mentality concerning elected officials that is now endemic in Hamilton.

Though I suspect that very little about the PanAm Games Stadium Site Selection Process is comprehended by the average Hamiltonian, the fact remains that 'Perception is reality'.

And this worries me.
Because I think that there's going to be both a white-wash and a backlash for and against the people's own government at a time when Council needs to generate a perception of capability, of resourcefulness, of Hope.

If I could, I'd get all of Council together and ask all of them their perspectives of all 'this' beyond the nuts-and-bolts, press-release, sound-bite stuff.

Because I believe that what Hamiltonians need right now...far more than 'some' seem to to be reassured.

Because though we might not be in the middle of a war, our citizenry has long-term battle fatigue.

Does anyone on Council realize this...?"

Which is what brought me to publish my next post.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

As Petula Clark sang...

The other day, I was chatting with a friend. She's a First Cook in a team of four personnel. The place she's working at has only been managed by the current company for one year. Nobody in the kitchen worked there last year.

She was telling me about the hassles of having to have someone working the till. How it meant they often had to juggle things in the kitchen in order to have someone out front. She described various mishaps, some inconvenience caused to customers, the general grief being generated.

I was a little confused. Because it seemed to me...admittedly, from a distance...that it made no sense whatsoever to have 'specialists' (cooks) spending valuable time ringing up sales and busing tables, the kind of chores anyone can do.

Wouldn't ya know it, after discussing it all amongst themselves, including the management, they're beginning to effect changes so that kitchen staff is not under-utilized at the till and in cleaning up the eating area. In other words, use your strengths, don't handicap yourself by ignoring or diminishing them.

I mention this because of another conversation I had this morning. This one was about Downtown Hamilton, the Topic of The Week so far. My focus was Jackson Square. And the role it plays in some conversations when downtown revitalization is bandied about. The antimony, the anger about its very construction, and most importantly, how it's almost always left out of the revitalization discussion by those who I've named The Willful Ones.

When I've analyzed Downtown Stoney Creek, one of the things I've harped on about (here, for example) is the fact that because it's a very small 'main street' (admittedly, I consider it to run from Elm to Lake, though a case can be made for New Mountain to Second Street), one of the primary concerns should be to make the best possible use of real estate. (So no Legions, no Veterans' Parkette...and no more 'professional' offices, thankyouverymuch.) The point being that when you're having to create something wonderful under compression...say, a must be mindful of the limitation of the form, and make the absolute most of what's at your disposal. 'The most bang for your buck', if you will.

The same with Downtown Hamilton.

Only in a completely different way...and yet...not.

'Downtown Hamilton' for me...and again, I'm being completely and entirely arbitrary here...and somewhat generous...runs from the south side of King to Barton, from Bay to Wellington.

Now, as I've explained ad nauseam, my memories of this area go back more than four decades. I remember what things were like 'back in the day', I remember when things were great, I remember when they got especially bad, I've seen what's been lost, I shake my head at what was used to replace them. In the late 70s, my best friend and I painted a mural at a comic shop on King west of Wellington, and were featured in The Spec. (We were beaten out of a front-page Saturday slot by a murder.) I saw movies at The Palace and The Capitol, two Thomas Lamb masterpieces. I remember my three friends and I getting into an altercation outside The Century with a guy who had taken offense to the Chinese Fire Drill we'd performed en route to the cinema. I went to both movies and concerts at The Tivoli. (Keeping with the theme, another friend and I created t-shirts that read: 'Pave the Broadway'.) I shopped at Marvin Caplan's. I worked in Jackson Square. I lived on Market Street. I had a cool moment with Holly Cole in the much-lamented Sam The Record Man on James North. For years, Saturday mornings at 7 am used to find me at the Farmers' Market. So I feel that my I can guarantee has little actual 'nostalgia' attached to a little more 'informed', a little less 'academic' than those of some.

I won't get into the whole 'Jackson Square was the worst possible thing to happen to Downtown Hamilton!' debate. Frankly, I find it more than a little ridiculous, mostly because The Willful Ones- Actually, just go here to see how I feel about it all.) But as a result of this morning's conversation, I've come to see how bizarre it is when Jackson Square is shunted aside in downtown revitalization discussions.

I don't think I've ever actually seen anyone presenting anything about Jackson Square other than 'It sucks'. People talk about how wonderful the Library is going to be, how great the Farmers' Market is going to be, this, that and the other...but I have yet to hear anyone frame things this way:

"You know, given what Downtown Hamilton currently is...from James to Wellington, from King to Wilson...don't you think it's kinda strange that the Number One Feature, Jackson Square, is never mentioned as being something that needs to be returned to its status of Desirable Retail Excursion Destination The Way it Was Thirty Years Ago'?"

Because it's not. It's never mentioned in that context.

People bitch and complain about 'Concrete Alley', King Street from James to Bay. They mourn 'what used to be'. (I can't resist pointing out that most were never ALIVE when things were 'the way they used to be', never mind that they have a distorted impression of 'what used to be', a decidedly 'seen through rose-coloured glasses' impression.) But nobody has presented the notion that maybe it might be a good idea when considering revitalizing a fixed area, resurrecting it (although even this is problematic, given some of the businesses that used to exist, because I believe it goes without saying that they could never return, that in fact, 'gentrification' would have to ensue for a true rebirth to occur...therefore making the term 'resurrection' ill-applied), to consider addressing the Number One Feature.

I think I know why. Most of The Willful Ones are anti-sprawl. Meaning they're anti-malls. (Most malls are not set in urban settings. The Eaton Centre in Downtown Toronto is a glorious exception.) So I believe there's a small part of a Willful One's brain...a teeny, tiny portion...that takes this innate enmity towards traditional malls and big-box developments and unconsciously transfers these energies towards Jackson Square. I won't even try to guess what the process is like, save to say that everything must get muddled, because the dismissiveness makes no sense whatsoever.

Even if they wish it, do they really believe for even a second that Jackson Square is going to disappear, opening things up for 'do-over', space where 'what used to be' can be reinstated? And that as a result of this salvation unfolding, that this would lead to a Brand New Day in Downtown Hamilton?

Ow. My brain hurts from passively considering that idea.

Jackson Square isn't going away. It's here to stay. But that doesn't mean that it's this ogre we simply have to resign ourselves to putting up with, to effectively ignore while we lovingly and laboriously construct a re-envisioned downtown.

It shouldn't be a liability.

It's an asset.

It just needs to be reassessed and readdressed.

Most malls go through a regular cycle of reinvention. Though it was suggested to me that the conventional cycle is 25-30 years, my experiences tell me otherwise.

Eastgate Square. Limeridge Mall. The Centre Mall. Mapleview Centre. Oakville Place. Sherway Gardens. Yorkdale Mall. All of these have gone through at least one 'refurbishment', if not more.

I'd say the current cycle is averaging fifteen years. And as the landscape continues to morph, I wouldn't be surprised if the cycle is reduced.

The last substantial 'change' Jackson Square went through (Sorry, I'm not counting anything to do with the Farmers' Market or the shifting of the Food Court.) was in 1985, when the Sheraton Hotel opened.

That's twenty-five years. (And I'm being generous.)

It's been pointed out to me already (by someone in the know) that complicated and entrenched mechanisms are in play where anything to do with a 'reworking' of Jackson Square is concerned, specifically with Yale Properties being the owner. Mechanisms having to do with corporate strategies, with mortgage financing, yadda, yadda, yadda.

All fine and well.

Jackson Square is a private concern. We don't get a vote as to what it features, what it looks like, any of that. Except in the form of 'dollars spent'. That is, you vote negatively by staying away.

But does this mean that we have to pretend that we're going to ignore the elephant in the room?

Surely we're better than that.

Re-imagining, re-inventing, revitalizing Downtown Hamilton is a phenomenally exciting prospect. And to the extent that we all have the right to contribute to the conversation, even if we're not directly empowered to effect the changes we crave, don't you think we owe it to ourselves to open our minds, to try to produce the sort of result downtown that some of us...The Willful Ones, anyway...wish that those-who-came-before would have accomplished?

OK, I just have to lob this one...

When I set out to respond to The Spec article on departing City of Hamilton's Manager of Downtown Renewal Ron Marini, I had all kinds of opportunities to launch in decidedly vitriolic ways. In the conventional message board default of 'Argumentum Ad Hominem'. This would have been the easy approach, to tap into longstanding frustration and anger, and simply let the vitriol spill.

But the Downtown Hamilton issue is too important a one to get caught up in the usual 'righteous indignation' routine, so I tried to focus on the much-bigger picture, rather than take Mr. Marini (and The Spec) to task for being so conveniently judicious with their 'press release'. However...

However, there was a quote in the article that I just couldn't resist pointing out here...although I'm still managing to show restraint and not launch into a hearty round of gobsmackedness. Here it is, in all its simple profundity.

"Downtown has always been for specialty shopping, the things you can't find in malls."

Honestly, given this statement, I'm prompted to wonder whether Hamilton has people in place who are qualified and capable of undertaking the enormous task of resurrecting the downtown. Either that, or I'm prompted to wonder whether everything issued by someone at Mr. Marini's level is managed down to the punctuation, everything spoken to the press an appropriately framed sound-bite.

For the longest time, I've been ruminating on a creative project. It would be a riff on the film 'Liar, Liar'. Only in this scenario, a governing entity would be 'afflicted' with having to tell the truth within a set time-frame. No prevaricating, no hedging, no bafflegab. Every word spoken by everyone in the government was truth.

Given this premise, what do you suppose the Spec article would have been like? That's assuming that The Spec would have asked the right questions, of course.

I know, I know; now I'm being silly.

And now, a full response to The Spec

As of this morning, the previously-published 'farewell' Spec article on the retiring Ron Marini has been updated. It can be found here

If I hadn't already been sufficiently 'motivated' to respond to the piece, I sure was this morning, when this popped out at me:

'A downtown once dangerous and derelict, Ron Marini saw beyond the rot'

Of course, the problem I have with it is that nowhere in the article is the cause of this 'rot' either examined, or explained.

Shame on The Spec for this.

But this 'update' on the article serves as a perfect lead-in for an editorial I had begun yesterday.

How does a downtown lose its edge?

How does a downtown go from being a focal-point of retail and entertainment, a true core of consumer concentration, to an area about which many comment 'I never go downtown unless I have to. Ugh.'?


(More importantly, yet not to be addressed this time out, how do you reverse the process?)

With the City of Hamilton's Manager of Downtown Renewal Ron Marini's retirement, and this article published in The Spec painting a rather too-facile retrospective of his accomplishments over the past ten years, I've felt compelled to take an 'in a nutshell' look at how downtowns decline...specifically how Hamilton's got to be where and how it is today. If only to provide a better sense of what Marini had been attempting to overcome. And whether back-patting is appropriate.

We live in a consumer society. One based on acquisition. On materialistic, acquisitional consumerism, where so very great a portion of most people's self-regard is at least informed by purchasing something. Endlessly.

(Oh, and I should add that we live in an automobile-centric society. Which, of course, is merely another manifestation of the this consumer default...while after all these years, still forming the basis of it.)

There's very little these days that's not an expression of this consumer urge. In fact, as I pointed out on RTH this year, even social networking is a consumable. So it should come as no surprise that while consumers can reasonably be shown to be sheeple (the power of advertising and marketing cannot be underestimated; this is, remember, how elections are won), their habits can raise an area to ascendency just as easily as it can stomp it into the ground by simply staying away.

If less people over time frequent an area...say, an might be for several reasons. One might be that discretionary income has fallen off; the economy has tanked, therefore people just aren't spending money, period. Another might be that a competing area - one not necessarily very far afield, it can actually be quite nearby- develops into a more desirable draw for consumers, therefore leaving the original area in its wake. The most commonly seen example is a new mall. A third could be the main source of consumers, the primary catchment area undergoes a severe shift and drops off precipitously. A fourth might be that new, negatively-tinged influences impact the area, not just taking the 'bloom off the rose', but for lack of a gentler analogy, 'manure settles on everything'. If there are sufficient negatives to a downtown...even if they're just perceived negatives...the area's traffic will suffer. If this continues long enough, and if nothing is done to counteract whatever has been brought to bear on the area, you eventually reach a crisis-point. Though naturally, there can be endless other reasons, a final one to consider is a wholesale shift in shopping habits.

Hamilton's descent into where it is currently...that of a non-downtown downtown, one that simply does not exhibit much of what the average consumer wants in a destination shopping location...has, at various points over the past five decades had all of these factors in play.

1) While the economy may not currently be in 'besieged' mode, Hamilton surely has had to contend with some harsh interludes since 1970 during which it had the shite kicked out of it. Never mind the fact that the city's had a pretty catastrophic shift in makeup (from steelmaking has to a great extent eviscerated the local economy for many.

2) Over the course of the past fifty years, seven local malls/conglomerated shopping areas opened. (Naturally, this doesn't include The Centre Mall, which first opened in 1955) Downtown Hamilton's Lloyd D Jackson Square débuted in 1972, taking more than a decade and a half to be brought to fruition. While much can be bandied about the merits of what had been conceived of as 'Civic Square' (I blogged about this issue here.), and 'what was lost' as a result of the mall opening at all, the fact remains that the mall did enormous sales numbers for years, employed God-knows-how-many at the retail level (At the very least, hundreds) and was a consumer draw for the longest time. However...

Eastgate Square- opened in 1973
Limeridge Mall- opened in 1981
Oakville Place- opened in 1981
Mapleview Mall- opened in 1990
The Meadowlands- opened in 2005 (?)

Even while Hamilton 'grew', these 'new' shopping options progressively sliced off pieces, removed chunks from whatever potential business Downtown Hamilton was generating/partaking of.

3) There's nothing like a captive audience. Whether we're talking about a dense, nearby catchment area, or in the case of Jackson Square, a consuming office population with its Stelco Tower. But when the bottom fell out of the steel market, and Stelco contracted, withering away in almost all regards, the mall lost a huge source of sales. Coming as it did at a time when the economy was struggling, the Negative Domino Effect kicked in. (I know this because my mom worked in Stelco Tower while I worked in retail in Jackson Square in the 80s, we were both there, we saw it first-hand, up-close-and-personal.)

4) I don't want to focus too much energy on this aspect, the 'negatively-tinged influences', but to deny that the shift in social services landscape downtown has not had a corresponding derogatory impact on the area's profile (read that as 'how people see the area' and 'whether or not business feel encouraged to locate there') is, at best, naïve. Complain all you want about people turning up their noses at 'undesirables', but this element is right there, on the 'Shopping Desirability' check-list...and not in the right column.

5) People don't shop the same way they did 'back in the day'. Online purchases. Outlet malls. Moreover, people have increasingly seen shopping as a leisure activity. As a means of entertainment. A day-out, an excursion, however you wish to frame it. Tied in with this is something the downtown can't offer what non-urban shopping areas (malls) can: free parking. (I'm really, really reluctant to get into the whole 'public transit as a fortifier of downtowns' discussion, because frankly, I find a good portion of what those who are its strident adherents offer up is based on an 'If only' wish-list. So I'm gonna leave it alone. For now.) When you combine this factor with the indisputable truth that downtown sure ain't nuthin' compared to what it used to be retail-wise, you have another piece of the puzzle.

Over the past twenty years, Downtown Hamilton has been on an ever-downward spiral. All of the above factored into its decline, but I've left out what probably accounted for much of this: Hamilton City Council took its eye off the ball.

During this time, we saw phenomenal peripheral development while Downtown Hamilton (and in fairness, pretty much the entirety of the north end) was ignored.

Left alone.

Mostly abandoned to the decay of ambivalence.

In other words, in favour of more flashy, more profitable peripheral development, the stewardship of the city's core, its very heart, was abrogated.

Good stewardship means paying attention, being engaged in the management process, having a solid -and flexible- perspective...and most of all, some vision. It sure seems from my vantage point that none of this was present regarding Downtown Hamilton.

No, it might not be fair to point out in hindsight that something should have been done when things began to unravel circa '85-'90.

But neither is it fair for yet another fluff piece to be issued where Mr. Marini is concerned, especially keeping in mind the last time I came across such a piece, as noted here.

I wish Mr. Marini well in his future endeavours. But I sure hope that given how much has been lost over the past twenty years, that somehow, someway, Hamilton City Council in all its various forms is able to better execute its stewardship of the downtown than it has.

Oh, and that The Spec does a more thorough job of examining the state of affairs in a suitably objective manner.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Regarding 'downtown renewal'...

This article appeared online on Boxing Day. It's essentially a farewell to/from Ron Marini, who has been City of Hamilton's Manager of Downtown Renewal for the past decade.

While I want to be kind and generous, and I certainly can appreciate what Mr. Marini's been up against, both from within and without, I'm still shaking my head at both the gist of the article, and some of its more contentious points. I'm all for optimism and a general 'We can do it!' attitude, but considering what's been going on in Downtown Hamilton for more than two decades now...or more specifically what hasn't been going on, from a 'The Responsibilities of Local Governance' point of view...I'm wondering what it actually takes to have honest discourse unfolding...when the area's newspaper seems complicit in glossing things over by way of an admittedly well-intended fluff piece.

As someone opined, 'I guess that's Spec-journalism.' Prompting me to ask...especially on the heels of my two-parter about the Stoney Creek that all that Hamiltonians deserve?

(More on this article presently.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

'Why?' you ask...?

Why am I insisting that the Stoney Creek News needs to play a pivotal role in the revitalization of Downtown Stoney Creek? Well, let's look at the other participants in the situation.

-Government. It's not the role of Hamilton Council to play so big a part in an area's revitalization. Government's role is to support, to create circumstances within which success can more probably happen. But the particulars of Downtown Stoney Creek, the dynamics involved are not of the variety where we're talking the commerce equivalent of 'disaster relief'. (Make no mistake about it, the downtown is a 'disaster', especially in comparison with what it could be. The irony is that it's been in this state for such a long time that some of the people who still frequent it just can't recognize what's in front of them.)

-Business and Property Owners. This is where the actual problem lies, as I've laid-out on countless occasions, in posts tagged "The 'Downtown' Issue". Land sits barren, buildings sit vacant, the assortment of actual businesses is poor, there is only one 'anchor' tenant...and seemingly, from the outside, the five or so 'Major Players' on King Street either have their heads down and are intent on 'getting through until the end' because they're worn out from just staying afloat all these years, they have myopia or perhaps not at all conversant with the notion of 'synergy' where thriving, vibrant, successful 'main streets' are concerned...or they just don't give a damn.

-Residents. The customers. You know, those people who keep businesses in business by way of their patronage. But they can only do this if there's something to spend their money on. The 'power' they have is usually only exerted in how they 'vote' with their money; either by patronizing businesses...or not.

You know, the idea of a revitalized Downtown Stoney Creek isn't just about more business being done. It's about what happens to a community when there is an actual 'central focus', when there's what they call a 'high street' in Britain. Urban centers are about people. About commerce. About gathering spaces.

And this isn't rocket science. I'm not spouting something hifalutin here, something only those familiar with the writings of Jane Jacobs would understand. This is a time-proven process, an organic one going back thousands of years. A town develops outward, the inner core's vibrancy rippling towards the peripheries. As opposed to the process of developer-driven sprawl, which has nothing organic attached to it at all, the fact that is in and of itself a reason for why this approach often ends up feeling so utterly soulless.

This doesn't mean that other areas of a city cannot be vibrant, cannot be world-beaters, cannot be great attractions, destinations for excursions. But if your 'downtown' has no draw save being a habit to some, or just happens to be where a major medical services building is located, if it's floundering and seems to have no 'zip', no 'oomph', if it doesn't actually play a vital role in the surrounding community, then not only is this's plain wrong.

Unfortunately, this is where Downtown Stoney Creek is. (Don't let the aging voices to the contrary fool you; they're the same ones who leapt up onto their soapboxes and declared as to how paid parking was the equivalent of the sky falling...when in fact a much, much more serious 'ailment' had taken root in our downtown, one that so far outstripped the metered-parking brouhaha as to make it laughable...if the situation wasn't already so pathetic.)

Here's my take on it all: nothing will ever happen until Those Who Currently Hold Almost All The Important Cards are put in a situation where continuing to do nothing proves to be not only a liability, but an unconscionable act. Unless this happens, what we see in front of us now is what we'll see in front of us in ten, twenty years. (Or worse: if the tendency to have 'professionals' make up more and more of our downtown continue, we can kiss the idea of a people-based downtown -retail, services, entertainment- goodbye.)

And these parties will not be put in that situation unless pressure is brought to bear on them.

Pressure from...?

Well, it can't come from government. As I've suggested, government has no mandate to make sure business concerns 'behave' a certain least not beyond the notion of making it more attractive for businesses to consider taking paths other than the ones they're on.

And residents tend to be too unfocused, too apathetic to effect change. Especially when it comes commerce: they like to be led. (Hello, advertising.)

This leaves us with media. Specifically, our community newspaper, the Stoney Creek News.

What's required is that the News actually begin presenting the decaying-and-dormant Downtown Stoney Creek as the news item that it is. This issue deserves to be a series of articles in the News. A series such as this:

1) Downtown Stoney Creek's history. I'd focus on the past 50 years, with a longer overview provided in sidebar form.
2) How Commerce Has Changed. What's been going on in the rest of the marketplace (in Hamilton, in Ontario, in Canada, over the rest of the world) over the past half-century.
3) What Makes for Thriving Downtowns, City-centres, Main Streets.
4) Where Downtown Stoney Creek is Today. An analysis of the current state of affairs
5) What Needs to Be Done. Recommendations, options and strategies.

Some may say that it's not the responsibility of the Stoney Creek News to effect change in Stoney Creek. The only polite response I have to that notion is 'bullshit'.

If it's not the responsibility of the community's newspaper to shine light on subjects that need some illumination, if it's not their responsibility to make the residents aware of a situation that affects their Quality of Life, if it's not within the purview of a newspaper to endeavour to inform, to educate, to provide its readers with what's required to produce informed, qualified opinions in them...

...then whose is it?

Surely to God the Stoney Creek News' only mandate can't be the obvious, what it has long excelled at, to merely regurgitate material already circulated by other elements of media in more expedient fashions, or report on feel-good mush.

Downtown Stoney Creek is the way it is for many reasons. There's no question that the health of the economy in general and the shifting of the area's specifically have been contributing factors to the area being a non-starter. But more than this, I believe a distinct lack of imagination, of entrepreneurial vision combined with an attachment to a time-worn status quo on the parts of land-owners have brought us to this morass. And that customers have progressively registered how they feel about all this by simply shopping elsewhere. Rectifying this situation can't be achieved by the simple publication of a few articles. But the effort can be spearheaded by such a gesture.

Stoney Creek residents deserve a much better downtown than what they've been provided for what amounts to decades, now. The Stoney Creek News can play a vital role in making this happen. It would be a wonderful way to galvanize the community, to bolster the newspaper's fading status, to make a suitable contribution to the lives lived here.

Letter to The Editor: An Unseasonably Uncheery Double Lump of Coal...

...or 'A Tale of Negativity: One Active and One Passive...With Some Obfuscation Thrown in For Good Measure. Oh, and Some Bad Reporting'.

Although I want to address two particular issues in this post, it's really about what role a community newspaper plays in its community. In the case of The Stoney Creek News, I'm interested in examining what role I feel it currently plays contrasted with the role I feel it should be playing. I was prompted to editorialize this time around because of a current article in the News, and a year-end assessment of a situation that's near and dear to my heart.

1: Active Negativity

'Stoney Creek left at the station by GO Transit choice'

That's the headline on the article dealing with the choice that GO Transit officials made regarding proposed stops on the Hamilton-to-Niagara GO route.

Which is a bizarre way of framing things, given that Centennial Parkway is the traditional demarcation line between 'The Old CIty Of Hamilton' and 'What Used to be Known as Stoney Creek'.

Here are some excerpts, stuff that really had me scratching my head:

"Called the Centennial station, it would replace a previous preferred station option at Fruitland Road. There would still be a train station layover at Lewis Road."

I love how the 'preferred' station option isn't immediately explained. 'Preferred' by whom, exactly? And the name of the station is wrong. The information can be found under the sub-link 'Niagara Penninsula rail service expansion' in the green pane towards the bottom of the page, here.

(Special note to the News: If you're going to actually post an external link in an article, as you did at the conclusion of yours, please don't make your readers work any harder than they need to in order to actually access the information you're suggesting they might want to take a look at. It's unseemly, it's rude...and it's sloppy.)

"The idea would be to shift all-day rail service between Hamilton and Union Station in Toronto to Confederation from Aldershot. Originally the terminus was proposed to be at a new station at James Street North."

Considering how murky the article ends up being (especially given that the News' readers hardly hang on every word printed), I wish it had been made clear from the start that 'Confederation' is the station moniker already put into play by GO Transit, and not some arbitrary (or lazy) News-generated reference.

"Go Transit officials said they are looking at a piece of land in the east end near the rail road junction, owned by the city of Hamilton, east of Centennial Parkway off Goderich Road, north of the rail line."

Um... I've just checked the area via Google Maps...and it sure appears as of Goderich Road runs west off Centennial Parkway. Strange, that. (For the sake of clarity, here's a map, courtesy of GO Transit.)

"Hamilton councilors, at the urging of former Stoney Creek politician Dave Mitchell, recommended GO Transit select Fruitland Road as the preferred station location."

So what?
No doubt that Mr. Mitchell wanted it there; this was his constituency. But does having it there make any sense? From just about any point of view?
Not to me.
According to the item, the James Street Station will be the the primary Hamilton stop. This makes sense: James Street North (Liuna) is in fact right downtown.
The next most sensible stop heading east?
I hardly believe that given the present demographics...and even projected ones, all of which potential ridership is tied to...that Fruitland Road is a better choice for a station between James Street North and Fifty Road.
Do you?
Now granted, I haven't done any investigating into what rationale was used in choosing Fruitland Road, but consider these distances from James Street North:

Centennial Parkway: 10km
Fruitland Road: 15km
Fifty Road: 20km

To whom exactly does it make sense that Fruitland Road makes a more sensible choice in terms of making the most of respective catchment areas?

Moreover, why on Earth would the News decide to not only have a badly-written article published given the importance of what's being reported, but to give it a headline that is grossly misleading?

If, for the sake of argument, the Stoney Creek News is appointing itself as Protector of Stoney Creek, in the sense that we're still living with the elephant in the room of The Merits of Amalgamation, then I'd think it would be reasonable to make it clear that by rights, if we're going to be fair, Fruitland Road is in...wait for it...Fruitland. (Yes, I'm fully aware that it was absorbed some years back, as was Winona...but my feeling is that if we're going to be brutally honest about how we label things, then we need stop fudging things, wholesale. Stoney Creek isn't Hamilton. Never has been, never will be. By the same token, Fruitland isn't Stoney Creek, Winona most assuredly isn't Stoney Creek, they never have been...and never will be.)

So what is the Stoney Creek News attempting to do here? Fan the flames of discontent?
Why the need to skew things?
Who is it that's pushing their agenda, one that says that it's more a reasonable choice to put a station at Fruitland Road between James Street North and Fifty Road?
Mostly: why isn't the News fulfilling its commitment as a reasonable, objective supporter of the community? Of Stoney Creek?
To paraphrase a notable quote from a notable film performance: 'Why so divisive?'

2: Passive Negativity

'Downtown Stoney Creek: There's no 'there', there.'

No, that's not a Stoney Creek News headline.

But it should be.

During 2010, after I got as much as I could out of my system about 'Merlo's Clear-cut', I spent a lot of time focusing on Downtown Stoney Creek. (All of the articles/editorials are tagged 'The 'Downtown' Issue'.) Specifically, that it's in a horrible state.

The perplexing thing is that, while the News has been aware of what I've written, there has yet to be even the most perfunctory effort made by the publication to cover it. No matter that the Stoney Creek Business Improvement Area has both been aware of what I've written as well as begun actively addressing the issue themselves. No matter that Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark has begun his own efforts on several different fronts to address the issue.

Granted, I haven't had any direct discussions with the News. I'm afraid that my 'stridency' some time back may have resulted in a chasm between myself and those who oversee things on their front. So it's not like there's been any discussion, any engagement between us.

Not that it's my responsibility to get the News to see the light.

I'm a blogger. Nothing more. I can make observations until I'm blue in the face, I can actually spend time redesigning the entire downtown, offer up extensive, tangible suggestions as to what's wrong with the downtown as well as potential remedies to these ailments, I can make sure that 'Those in The Know' are made aware of everything I've laboured to contribute...

...but in the end, I'm just a blogger. I don't have sufficient readership, I certainly don't hold any amount of sway whatsoever with anyone who plays a part in this very sad tale.

But you know who does? At least from my perspective? At least from the way I see things?

The Stoney Creek News.

Recently, I made a comment on a message board that it seemed that people (at least those to are interested) can muster all kinds of righteous indignation when a business area has fallen on bad times. When things are about as bad as they might be, especially when compared to how they used to be. But you very rarely see the same energies applied when things aren't appearing quite so calamitous.

And that's what seems to be going on regarding Downtown Stoney Creek.

Especially where the Stoney Creek News is concerned.

I don't want to belabour the point here, repeat stuff I've already, go on ad nauseam about. Nor do I want to get into an argument about my take on the downtown; if you think that things are fine, that there's no cause for concern, then clearly we'll have to agree to disagree. So instead, I'll limit my comments to one brief point: this year, I asked a very simple question that dealt with the state of affairs in Downtown Stoney Creek. I was spurred on by Hamilton's Downtown Revitalization Czar (my phraseology) Ron Marini's insistence that- Well, here's the article. And here's my question:

"In three years' time, when we're hosting the bicentennial of The Battle of Stoney Creek, and nothing substantive has changed in Downtown Stoney Creek, we hopefully have all of our properties filled and our hanging baskets are well-watered and the enhoused plants are summarily dead-headed, our benches are in working order and all of our signage is looking downright spiffy...

...just what is it that we're all hoping that our thousands of visitors will be spending money on to put revenue into the local economy, other that their admission fees to the re-enactment, their souvenirs...and perhaps an ice cream or two purchased at the Dairy?"

Putting aside the fact that it appears that the Stoney Creek Dairy will not have made it to either 2012 or 2013, what I had been asking back then remains the same.

And yet in spite of this pretty inarguable truth, the News has chosen to not get involved.

To turn a blind eye.

And to instead, focus on news items such as 'Dofasco Christmas party draws thousands'.

Given the Stoney Creek News' often fervent take on the distinctness of Stoney Creek, its consistently defensive stance, I'm rather perplexed as to what it feels its role is in the community. Because there appears a dichotomy at play.

On the one hand, in the case of active negativity, the News seems to have no problem at all painting a particular picture of an issue, the bias of which is clear to see. (If you want an example beyond the one I led off this editorial with, take a look at this article. What I was yammering on about was hardly the stuff of finely-executed, carefully-considered journalism.)

And on the other hand, the News seems intent on not standing up for its least within its original readership area, 'The Golden Square Mile', in which Downtown Stoney Creek is situated...because you'd think that Hamilton's downtown was the only such area in need of some protracted revitalization effort.

I get that the News is not an independent community paper. That its mandate is controlled by its parent company...which is itself controlled by its parent company.

I get that there might not be much latitude for the journalists or the editorial management, that their hands are tied.

I get that staff availability might not be optimum, that the News is constantly straining to deliver the product it might actually want to deliver.

What I don't get is how these 'truths' can seemingly endlessly be used as rationalizations for not showing some leadership, for not playing the role that -I believe- a community newspaper should be playing.

How can a floundering downtown possibly be ignored? How can it not be seen as a news item? How can it not be regarded as something worthy of -over the course of whatever time frame you feel inclined to suggest- motivating something on the part of the News that brings to light the fact that the Number One issue in Downtown Stoney Creek is not the much-whinged about 'paid parking' brouhaha, but the fact that the area is in dire need of some honest assessment, some vitality being invested in its resurrection?

This is the stuff of responsible journalism. It's the stuff of an active role of leadership in any community, something that goes hand-in-hand with what our elected officials are charged with doing, as well as what an engaged citizenry should be inclined to contribute.

Honestly, I don't know what pisses me off more: the fact that the handful of major players in Downtown Stoney Creek seem so mired in their own ambivalence, their entrenched inertia...or the fact that the Stoney Creek News seems to be either so out-to-lunch...or willfully refusing to play any part at all, save maybe to document an even worse slide into nothingness, when an even greater percentage of spots on King Street have been occupied by 'professionals', and it'll be time to offer up retrospectives on the situation, with articles entitled 'What Happened to Our Downtown?' and 'Remember When? A Series on How Things Used to Be, When We Actually Had a Downtown in Stoney Creek'.

Or maybe the time has come for another community newspaper in Stoney Creek.