All eyes on Ottawa Street
Once down and out, Hamilton's home decor district has much to offer. With the redeveloping Centre Mall nearby, the area is looking good. And Kenilworth Street may get on board with its own BIA.
April 04, 2009
Lisa Grace Marr
The Hamilton Spectator
If the measure of a city's resilience can be taken in the spirit of its entrepreneurs, then Hamilton should look to Ottawa Street for inspiration.
As the recession deepens and layoffs abound nearby at the steel plants on Burlington Street, Patty Despinic is running around helping people who are racing to open four stores by the spring.
In between, as executive director of the Ottawa Business Improvement Area (BIA) she's gathering up eight applications for city facade grants worth about $100,000 in construction.
"There's always some excitement here, we're just this little spot that doesn't always get noticed."
But it's noticed enough, thanks to a major advertising campaign to make the home decor shopping area the top tourist attraction in the city. Not bad for a street that, to put it kindly, was a bit down at the heels less than a decade ago.
"When I started 12 years ago (with the BIA), there were 30 vacancies on the street. Now I think I have five," said Despinic.
Some of the boost in activity can be credited to the huge multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Centre Mall, which sits between Ottawa and Kenilworth streets abutting Barton Street on the north side.
Eventually, the former mall will be converted to a sprawling outdoor power centre with a Boston Pizza restaurant, a 105,000-square-foot new format Canadian Tire store, a Metro, Zellers and many others.
Many of the smaller independent stores that were inside the mall have moved out.
Many have chosen to stay in the neighbourhood, including Premier Time & Jewellery and Showtime Fragrances, opening soon on Ottawa Street.
But the big coup is the farmers' market, forced out of Centre Mall's parking lot into Ottawa Street's.
Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla wants the next major street over, Kenilworth Avenue, to benefit from the momentum on Ottawa and at Centre Mall.
He's determined to rid Kenilworth of the commercial storefronts that are "illegal conversions" to residential units.
He called a meeting March 3 of city staff and business/property owners to discuss creating a Kenilworth BIA. The meeting had a good turnout, with about 3o businesses represented.
It was a fortuitous day for the meeting -- U.S. Steel had just announced that afternoon that it would be laying off 720 workers at its Hilton Works plant. That's in addition to 684 laid off since November. In short order, U.S. Steel had sucked much of the life out of an already gasping neighbourhood.
Dave Shipton, owner of Shipton Furnace and Heating, a fixture on Kenilworth for more than 60 years, went to the meeting mindful of the impact of that day's news.
He remembers the days of heavy traffic down the street toward Stelco. He hopes a cleaned up street plus Centre Mall will help bring the traffic back.
"Even some flowers, better lighting, clean up some stores," he said.
"If we were like Ottawa and we got to advertising, I think that would attract even more people."
Robert Bragdon at East Hamilton Radio on the corner of Kenilworth and Barton didn't go to the meeting. But he was encouraged by the idea of a BIA on Kenilworth.
"I'm of the belief that around any power centre or mall, the small independents will show up again and serve customers. (That philosophy) has kept us in business for 78 years.
"(Centre Mall) is going to mean a lot of good stuff for this community."
Maureen Whittaker is building on that philosophy with her new consignment furniture store, The Millionaire's Daughter on Ottawa.
She plans on integrating goods from other stores such as floral displays, upholstery or drapery fabrics in her sprawling 4,000-square-foot showroom as marketing devices. "I think we can all work together."
Kenilworth businesses now must assess what properties, boundaries and potential there is for a new business improvement area in Hamilton's industrial heart.
Michael Desroches, who owns a real estate brokerage firm on Kenilworth, is convinced that change is mandatory for revitalization to take place. He said some of the buildings on the street need to be demolished, but there is potential.
"We've got to clean up. I think there are some (buildings) worth fixing up."
Despinic has been asked to help out with the first few meetings of property owners to help them chart their future. She said creating a successful BIA does not happen overnight.
Shipton said there are many lessons to be learned from neighbours.
"I think it's long overdue. In these times, every little bit helps. We need a shot in the arm to get it back. I've been here 30 years. The last 20, the place has been going downhill. It's time to do something."