Hamilton deserves better!

Kevin’s recent Back to School post inspired me to write this post.

This has been a pet peeve of mine for as long as I can remember. There is this idea that Hamilton is a steel town and this concept is just wrong these days. Hamilton WAS a steel town, even when I was a kid it was a steel town. Dofasco, Stelco and the other smaller steel companies were a major force in the economy, they employed 10’s of thousands of people, they paid very well even for unskilled labourers and they were a goal for many kids coming out of high school.

Those days are long gone but the concept is still around, and I feel it’s being perpetuated by our local government. What needs to happen is the government needs to entice high tech companies to Hamilton, give them incentives to be here.

Hamilton has so many positives, especially in the last few years.
– A thriving arts culture.
– A beautiful bayfront area (that admittedly could still use some development)
– Lower cost housing compared to most cities of our size in the area.

We’re growing and evolving, we’re no longer the grungy steel town (and I do not mean any offense to any of our current or past steel workers, my father spent 40+ years at Dofasco and they provided our family a good living) with nothing to offer the outside world. We’re a great centre for the arts, we still have more green space than most cities our size with beautiful parks and trails to explore. Yet we still have this stigma, this great weight hanging over our heads that we’re somehow a second class city compared to somewhere like Toronto and that makes me sad.

 

hamilton

 

We need to show the world how beautiful a city we are, what we have to offer residents and even more important companies (read high tech companies) that are willing to relocate here. We need to promote ourselves, get the word out there. I read on this blog that the city is planning to redo their website, I really hope they focus on making it more attractive and promoting the city rather than being strictly informational the way it is now. Bright pictures, benefits of the city and information about US is what needs to be front and centre. Yes we need the regular bus routes, garbage pick up and other resident information, but it needs to advertise us to the world first. Our government needs to stop doing things like hoarding domain names (seriously go to www.myhamilton.ca and see what you get. A brilliant domain like that which has so many excellent promotional possibilities is a redirect to our library? Really? Why? Who decided that was a good idea and why are we allowing them to do these things?)

I honestly believe we need to offer financial incentives to these companies too. How about no property taxes for say 10 years for larger tech companies to relocate here. Sounds extreme, we need taxes right? Well yes, of course we do, but what’s more important? What is going to be more beneficial in the long run? A few dollars a year from one building, or the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of high level jobs a company like Microsoft or Adobe could offer by being in our fair city?

I say our government needs to do these things because they have the power to grant the incentives that would entice these companies to relocate here, but it’s up to us to promote our city, it’s up to us to push our government to do these things and make them realize that it’s important for Hamilton to put itself out there as a viable option for these companies. It’s up to us to make them aware of things like Kevin’s impromptu poll’s results showing that more students would stay here given viable job opportunities. We’re 40 miles ish from Toronto, think about that. The commute from Toronto to Hamilton is far better than the reverse, there are tons of tech types living in Toronto and Hamilton has tons of us too. The people resources already exist. It’s time we showed the WORLD what a wonderful city we have, why are we guarding this knowledge like it was some sort of national secret?

Now don’t get me wrong, Hamilton hasn’t been completely stagnant on this front. People like Kevin and things like the CoderCamps, StartupDrinks and DemoCamps. Organizations like the Innovation Factory and competitions like Lion’s Lair, these things are all great and I love the fact they exist, but they’re all focused on Start Ups. Which is awesome, Hamilton should be putting ourselves on the map for new innovation too but it doesn’t (shouldn’t) end there. Start ups are great, sometimes they even work and become huge companies, some times they don’t. They’re almost always stuck with lower budgets meaning lower than average wages for the employees, which face it isn’t going to entice a student to stay here. Gee I can make $40k in Hamilton or $110k in Toronto, New York, Vancouver… Start ups are great, and they’re a wonderful opportunity for many of us, but they aren’t the only answer. We need the big tech companies.

I’m a Hamiltonian. I say that with pride now (I didn’t always) and it’s time we made the world aware of why we’re proud to live here, what our city has to offer and why large tech companies should consider Hamilton seriously when they’re considering their Canadian offices!

We’re not a steel town anymore, we need to stop acting like one. We’re already Hollywood North, why not Silicon Valley North too?

  • Kevin Browne

    I agree that getting some large companies to setup shop here would be very beneficial due to the jobs they bring in, especially the $70k-100k salaries they can pay compared to startups. Google has been awesome for Waterloo, not only for the jobs they’ve put into the city, but also for their ability to acquire startups (like BufferBox). Cities around Ontario with the strongest tech sectors tend to have at least one large company in the area if not several, like IBM in Markham and VMWare in Burlington.

    You’ve got some good ideas in terms of attracting these companies. I know that a concern for tech companies is being around other tech companies, they like to cluster. We have more tech companies here than most people realize, and more successful ones too. Access to talent is another thing, but I think we’ve got that taken care of.

    I’ve thought for awhile now that there’s an opportunity for Hamilton to position itself as a more cost effective option for tech companies looking to setup in Ontario. Tech companies know that Ontario is a great place to setup, mostly because of Waterloo and Toronto (and there’s arguments out there that Toronto and Waterloo are actually the “same ecosystem”, but for now most people still seem to see them as connected but distinct). I think it’s a matter of selling them on Hamilton being the most cost effective option in a great region for tech companies.

  • S Woodside

    The Waterloo ecosystem got a major jolt when they moved into the Tannery District aka Communitech Hub. It’s amazing space, lots of it, and centrally located in Kitchener. Huge bonus in terms of lifestyle. Compare to the original Accelerator Centre space which was remote in suburban Waterloo and never quite had the same sex appeal or success.

    The current Innovation Park location & space does not have sex appeal for startups. Something downtown would be far superior.

    • Karl Wiklund

      It depends a bit on the startup I think. The company that I’m at (Vitasound) is located in MIP, and it makes a lot of sense for us to be there given how we’ve been spun off out of research from McMaster. Quick access to Mac facilities like the libraries and our research partners has definitely been a plus. I can see this working out well for other spin-off companies as well. The main problem with having an office in MIP however, is the rent, which is quite a bit higher than elsewhere. This does seem counterproductive for a centre geared to technology start-ups.
      Your point though is well taken, especially for companies with no particular connection to McMaster. I’m not sure how Platform 302 stacks up for this. I do know that for a while, people were bandying around the idea of turning the old Connaught building into an incubator, although that notion seems to have fizzled.

      • S Woodside

        MIP is expensive and it’s not close enough to Westdale village to compensate.
        Platform 302 is too far East where MIP is too far West. Same problem — no neighbourhood.
        From the Tannery, or my office in Uptown waterloo, you are literally right on top of restaurants, shops, lots of other offices. It’s a huge value add.

        • http://www.canuckseo.com/ Jim Rudnick

          And as Simon noted it really “IS” a Hub in more of a community sense too….you just must visit what they have there to truly appreciate that model, eh! :-)

  • Rick Calder

    Sadly you bring up some good points, the issue isn’t nearly as black and white as I’d like it to be. However I do think our proximity to Toronto does make us a bit more of a contender than other cities you’ve mentioned. Driving from Toronto to Hamilton in the morning is usually less than a 30 minute trip, compared to the reverse which is regularly over an hour.

    We’re also expanding as a city with large areas of residential expansion in the last few years and that housing is vastly cheaper than similar housing in Toronto meaning the incentive for Toronto residents to actually reside here is there too if the opportunities existed.

    I do understand that there are more hurdles to cross than simply costs, my main goal with my post was to put forward the idea that the city, and us the residents, need to do a better job of promoting Hamilton as the beautiful city that it is and the fact that it’s in a wonderful geographic location too in regards to easy access to most major cities in the area as well as the United States with the border being just a 40 minute drive too.

  • Kevin Browne

    These are some great points Eden.

    The jobs you are referencing are great to have, but things like MoMAC and the health sciences complex are education / healthcare government services that are expanding in tune with a growing and aging population. They aren’t the sort of private sector jobs that do something for the 50% of the population people stuck in contractual work and McJobs that most of our private sector job growth is amounting to lately. Soaring government debt levels will also keep a ceiling on how many of those government jobs we can provide in the future.

    Materials research that you’ve referenced, automotive research and advanced manufacturing are all more promising. Though a lot of the jobs in those areas are actually ICT. The automotive and materials research @ MIP is very, very ICT / software heavy: http://mcmasterinnovationpark.ca/mcmaster-university-automotive-resource-centre. My friends that have done the automation program at Mohawk have been able to find “manufacturing” jobs in Hamilton, but most of their daily job is actually ICT (working with a computer system, writing code to automate processes too).

    With traditional manufacturing stagnate or leaving, we’re left (mostly) with STEM jobs as our new potential high-income private sector. But 71% of STEM jobs through 2018 are actually now predicted to be in “computing” rather than traditional engineering fields.

    So when you add it all together, it’s very hard to picture how computing and software doesn’t play a major role in future job creation in Hamilton, unless of course Hamilton continues to stagnate below its potential.

    One thing to consider is that the nature of “computing” jobs has changed a lot over the last 30-40 years. When Waterloo was really starting to get moving in the 1980s to 1990s, technology jobs meant actually building a layer of technology. OpenText, RIM, Watcom and the rest you reference are all examples of what I mean by this. Making things like compilers or devices. Where as fast forward 20-25 years later and the new computing jobs are actually “software+” jobs that incorporate software plus its impact on some other industry. Now ICT jobs are increasingly things like SaaS, health tech, edutech, video games, etc. So things like Hootsuite in Vancouver, Shopify in Ottawa, Freshbooks in Toronto, or Desire2Learn in Waterloo. It’s hard to even really picture those companies 20-25 years ago, and they all incorporate software solutions applied to some area, “software is eating the world” and all.

    So when you say McMaster’s strength is theoretical computing, I agree, but I don’t think that’s a huge problem. It’s still important to have great talent, but I think “talent” now means somebody that can create software to solve problems in other industries.

    As for whether a lower cost centre will be enough to attract ICT investment, it already is attracting IT investment now (REfficient, Hyfire, Peapod Studios, ISIS Insights, Snakehead Games, Net6, Precursor Games have all moved in from else where in Ontario, mostly the GTA, over the last couple years). The case is already there and companies are already taking advantage of it, and the local and regional talent is there for them. What would be nice is to make the case to get some international offices of the major players, along the lines of say a VMWare in Burlington.

    I agree with you about the importance of some of our own startups exploding and then re-investing in the area. That’s everything really. Community activities provide a galvanizing effect in terms of inspiration, education, connections, and publicity, but at the end of the day ecosystems thrive because of growing companies. I expect the key to this is focusing on things that we can do better than other places, and I suspect e-commerce (magnified effect of cheap space, path already paved by Mabel’s Labels), health tech (obvious), edutech and video game sectors could be strong here.

    The last thing to keep in mind is timelines, in that a lot of this stuff people are “envisioning” will take 20+ years to see through. I don’t think anyone is suggesting Hamilton can become a centre like Waterloo next year, or even in 10 years. A lot of these companies we reference as big successes in our own ecosystem and others have taken 10+ years to get there. And like I stated in my original post, I think increasing the amount of local children pursuing computing as a field is of absolutely paramount importance to providing them with better job options than never ending contractual work and McJobs.