By John Devine
Special to Ontario Construction Report
The year 2020 proved to be a challenging year for cities across the globe. From empty offices and business lockdowns, to strict public health restrictions, economic development offices faced challenges not seen in generations.
As the COVID-19 pandemic brought change to everyday processes, one city in particular adapted well through extensive collaborative efforts, imaginative ways to provide services and accommodating the needs of the business community quickly and effectively. 2020 turned out to be one of the best development years on record for Hamilton, Ontario.
“Last year was extremely productive in terms of building permit activity,” said Norm Schleehahn, Director of Economic Development for the City of Hamilton. “Not only did we have the third best year in the history of the corporation for building permit values ($1.3 Billion), but we also set a record for industrial permit values.”
As the applications continued to roll in and pandemic restrictions kept offices and municipal departments closed, the City made it a priority to move its approval processes and many of their applications online.
The entire planning and approval process for many major investments, including the nearly one million-square foot fulfillment centre announced by global brand Amazon, were completed online and through virtual meetings. The centre is one of the largest local investments in terms of square footage in Hamilton’s history, and the project is anticipated to deliver more than 1,500 new jobs when it opens later this year.
“The City has done well in terms of responding to the challenges that were put in front of us. In this remote environment we are still able to push developments through, and that development interest continues today,” said Schleehahn.
Schleehahn says that developers and businesses alike have responded well to working in this new virtual environment.
“There were some who were very well suited for this. It took some a while to adjust, but the majority of them were up to the challenge and rose to the occasion.”
As director, Schleehahn oversees several aspects of economic development in Hamilton, including support for established small businesses impacted by COVID. The City, he says, implemented a number of resources “right out of the gate” to help businesses cope, including online resources such as the Hometown Hub, identified as a one-stop solution for online, local shopping. The site’s mission is to connect residents with small businesses in the City’s communities.
“We have been working extremely hard with the sectors of our economy that have been severely impacted by the pandemic, especially small businesses and the hospitality industry,” says Schleehahn, pointing to the Digital Main Street program as another online resource that assists businesses build an online presence.
The City has partnered with the Hamilton, Flamborough and Stoney Creek Chambers of Commerce, to develop a one-stop, phone-line and website, the Hamilton COVID Concierge for Business, which offers easy access to business-related COVID questions.
“If you have COVID-related questions, such as restrictions and support programs available, all that information is succinctly laid out on the website or a dedicated phone line with live attendants if that is your preference.”
Other measures to support local businesses included a $10,000 grant to each of the 13 Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) to support special programming in 2021 and the creation of the Outdoor Dining Districts program that waived all applicable City fees for restaurants, cafes and bars establishing an outdoor patio. This program has continued into 2021.
As might be expected, municipalities are sharing best practices in dealing with the pandemic.
“We certainly speak with our neighbouring municipalities and there are provincial associations and other groups where we share information, whether they are official or unofficial groups. There is a lot of cross-network talk going on. Many of our municipal counterparts have inquired about the Hamilton COVID Concierge for Business website.”
As 2021 unfolds, an important component of economic recovery will involve implementation of recommendations put forth by the Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Recovery, says Schleehahn and continuing to expedite major investments, including the opening of the new L3Harris headquarters in Flamborough- a 330,000-square-foot development that’s expected to employ more than 1,200.
“There is still plenty of interest on the industrial side, and we are looking forward to bringing these projects to fruition. There are a few in process that I’m excited to share when we have all the I’s dotted and t’s crossed, but over the next few months I’m hoping they will be announced,” he says.
“In the downtown, construction continues on several condominium towers that are still moving forward … you can see right now that there are many cranes dotting the landscape in the downtown core, so it’s an exciting time for Hamilton.”