The Golden Horseshoe is the region that bends around the westernmost end of Lake Ontario in Canada. At the center of the horseshoe’s curve is Hamilton, a city of 520,000 known for industry, education and cultural diversity, having the third-largest foreign-born population in the country. Located 70 kilometers southwest of Toronto (the 2014 Intelligent Community of the Year), Hamilton was once known as the Steel Capital of Canada, producing 60% of the nation’s steel. It is also a successful lake port city and operates an airport that saw passenger traffic grow tenfold from 1996 to 2002. A 30-year economic development plan begun in 2003 set the goal of creating a massive aerotropolis industrial park around that airport to capitalize on its success.
From Steel to Fiber
Being an industrial city in the broadband economy, however, has its challenges. Its biggest steel producer nearly went bankrupt before returning to profitability in 2004. It subsequently sold out to US Steel, which sold to ArcelorMital of India. That company made major investments in the facility, making it one of the company’s most efficient and productive plants – but one that employs a much smaller number of more highly-skilled employees.
Hamilton’s economic development effort now focuses on playing to its 21st Century strengths. In 2014, it established HCE Telecom as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the city. The City Council was driven to make this decision by Hamilton’s major employers, who complained about unplanned outages, poor customer support and lack of responsiveness from incumbents.
Since its start in 2015, HCE has deployed a 10-gigabit fiber network to serve city facilities, business, universities and hospitals and make the city more attractive to leading-edge employers. More than 160 Hamilton locations currently receive service, and HCE has extended connectivity to more than 600 locations across Canada.
In March of 2017, HCE acquired Sunrise Interactive Net6, which is an organization that specializes in on-shore, near-shore, and offshore Internet solutions. HCE plans to use Sunrise’s expertise to deliver new hosting, disaster recovery, call center and data center options for the area.
Forging New Companies
City leaders have come to recognize that, in the past, the city wasted too much of potential of its universities, colleges and public schools. These institutions have formed a collaborative initiative called Education City to brand Hamilton as a destination for academic success, to which each partner contributes programs. The public school system has made it requirement for graduation from secondary school for students to devote 40 hours to community-building work with local nonprofits. McMaster Innovation Park (MIP) is a 55-acre innovation and research park where technology startups are collocated with the research capabilities of McMaster University and Mohawk College. MIP is home to Innovation Factory, a regional innovation centre set up to help companies find and access resources to start technology businesses; and the Forge, an incubator-accelerator by McMaster University to help drive entrepreneurship within their students and faculty that provides training, access to prototyping and production facilities.
The city has also established a life sciences cluster called Synapse Life Sciences Consortium comprised of local hospitals, academic institutions, and private sector firms to leverage its strong hospital network and bring health research to commercialization. Using funding from public and private sources, it has also established a Centre for Integrated Transportation and Mobility to offer business and technical advisory services to Ontario-based startups and small-to-midize companies working to commercialize connected and autonomous vehicles.
Mohawk College has partnered with the city, the District School Board, the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic School Board and other industry partners to start two programs to expand educational opportunity. College in Motion places staff in various Hamilton high schools, libraries and community centers to offer information and encouragement to students consider post-secondary education. Staffers provide one-on-one counselling and advice, including identifying students’ areas of interest and connecting them with college faculty members for further support. The City School program provides free, for-credit courses and workshops to students in poor neighborhoods, including specialized learning programs, workshops and other services. It targets school-age and older people who lack educational credentials and offers skills training in subjects from digital photography and advanced manufacturing to child development and welding. Courses are developed in close collaboration with neighborhood champions who help shape the local offerings and help residents gain access to them. The program launched a mobile classroom with over 1,000 square feet of learning space including carpentry and welding stations in the fall of 2017 to bring education to disadvantaged neighborhoods. Delivered by Mohawk College staff, the courses are designed to break down fears of the educational system, provide a base level of skills – but also to create an “on-ramp” to programs at Mohawk, where students can earn an associate’s degree and substantially increase their earning potential. The success of the program has led Hamilton’s Community Access & Engagement team to present it at conferences across Canada.
Creating New Land
With a lack of new land for development, Hamilton has focused on remediation of industrial brownfield sites. Through an innovative program called ERASE, it offers financial incentives to companies to clean up and repurpose polluted sites. The city has approved hundreds of development grant applications worth more than C$20 million. Redevelopment underway has generated C$3 million in construction and created 650 jobs.
The city has also focused its efforts on cleaning and revitalizing the Hamilton Harbour with the help of the provincial and federal governments via the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan. Beginning in 1989, the city has built nine combined sewer overflow (CSO) tanks to capture untreated sanitary and storm sewage during storms to keep it from being returned to the water supply until treated. Hamilton has dramatically revitalized the shoreline through the Pier 4 Park and Bayfront Park developments in the West Harbour, transforming what was once an industrial landfill site into a beautiful recreational public space. The city is also currently working on wastewater treatment plant upgrades and a variety of other projects to fully restore and enhance the Harbour’s ecosystem, including commissioning a LEED-certified environmental laboratory at the Woodward Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Engagement in Change
Hamilton created a master plan called Vision 2020 in the 1990s to guide development over the next 25 years. In 2015, it began a refresh of the plan that is a model for community engagement in planning. It brought a booth to local festivals and community centers to have conversations with residents about their vision of the future. Engagement methods included online surveys, meetings with key stakeholders, advertising and public meetings, but also bus tours to orient newcomers to the city and encourage residents to see their community in a new way. Through these means, Hamilton engaged with over 50,000 residents and from that input created the “Our Future Hamilton” vision setting priorities for a new 10-year strategic plan. Among the many goals is the establishment of a Digital Office for the city focusing on improving quality of life and the digital transformation of government.
The decline of industrial employment has stranded workers who do not possess the skills and access to technology to compete in the broadband economy. A Hamilton charity operates a successful digital equality program called GreenBYTE that collects end-of-life computer systems, refurbishes them, and provides them to low-income households at no cost. It also provides computer certification training to low-income individuals. Since 2001, GreenBYTE has donated more than 12,000 computers to households, helped 100 graduates receive computer certifications and upgraded an after-school computer lab for the city.
In addition to providing computer access to households in need, Hamilton has focused on introducing local youth to digital learning at an early age. The Hamilton Code Clubs (HCC) is an initiative of the Industry Education Council (IEC) and Software Hamilton. Now in its third year of operation, HCC has had over 1,800 student participants aged 9 to 14 years old. The program teaches students core programing fundamentals during lunch breaks or after school, as well as bringing youth from across the city together to create video and data management games and websites and to program SPRK Sphero robots. HCC now includes weekend programs at the Hamilton Public Library and summer and robotics camps.
Geography, trade, industry and hard work built Hamilton’s successful economic past. Its future will leverage those same assets to create an economy that can prosper in the digital era.
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