Down to the core The effects of revival on the Steel City

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Steel mills in Hamilton were once the city’s largest employer and one of the main reasons that the downtown core was thriving. However, when the steel industry began to lose its edge, so did the city, leaving a lasting effect that shook Hamilton down to the core.

Hamilton’s downtown looks significantly different than it did a few years ago. In particular, the King Street strip, which once hosted abandoned storefronts and eclectic businesses, has entered a new state of revitalization.

Businesses of all types have been flocking to the Steel City over the past decade in an effort to contribute towards Hamilton’s “renaissance”, a term being used across the board to explain Hamilton’s urban revival.

The options are seemingly limitless when it comes down to what you can do in Hamilton. The changes that the core has faced within the last five years, specifically along King Street East, has given the city of Hamilton a breath of renewal.

However, the changes in infrastructure with the Light Rail Transit project moving forward and the rise in costs of living and operating a business are challenges that several businesses amongst the downtown core are facing head-on.

You can do anything on King Street

From chain restaurants, to co-working spaces to niche, experimental business concepts, the versatile nature of King Street proves that there’s something for everyone. The street is home to a ping pong bar, a game store that doubles as an arcade, several boutiques, vintage purveyors and an escape room, in addition to several other hospitality and retail destinations.

Whitney McMeekin opened her business, Girl on the Wing, along King Street nearly four and a half years ago. Amidst several abandoned storefronts and a diverse range of businesses, McMeekin opened up shop in an effort to bring attention to the area.

“I liked the idea of being off the beaten path a little and attempting to bring some attention to an area that not many people frequented,” said McMeekin. “I also loved the diversity in types of businesses here.”

McMeekin’s business is one of several specialty retail stores that finds its home along King Street and who have opened for that same reason. There is definite character to be found in storefronts along King Street that is hard to find anywhere else. The eclectic range of business ventures, the architectural attributes in which many store owners take pride and the rich history several buildings along King Street hold often make it the best place for one to set up shop.

“It’s only going to grow more. Especially with projects like the Spallaci buildings and the condos near King William”

 

Trevor Hunt
Co-owner,
The Fizz

Rising costs of operating

The rise in popular entrepreneurial ventures within the city has also contributed to the overall rising cost of living within the city itself. With a tremendous spike in higher-end business ventures and hospitality services, there has also been a significant spike in the cost for both residential and commercial rental spaces.

From 2013 to 2015, vacancy rates within the city of Hamilton fell to 1.8 per cent from 3.4 per cent, forcing rental costs to skyrocket and lowering the means for affordable rental spaces across the city.

“When I hear other people’s rents around me, especially newer people, I’m always a bit surprised that it’s so much higher than mine. But I signed my lease almost five years ago,” noted McMeekin.

This past spring saw the opening of The Fizz: Soda and Sandwich shop on King Street East. The niche, specialty soda shop, run by Trevor and Amanda Hunt, is just one of many new businesses to open up shop along the King Street strip who pay significantly more than their neighbouring entrepreneurs.

“Property prices are rising for sure. I myself pay more than my neighbour who has been here for only a few years prior to me,” said Trevor Hunt. “It’s only going to grow more. Especially with projects like the Spallacci buildings and the condos near King William.”

With higher-end condos on the rise within the city, specifically projects such as the Royal Connaught, the costs of living and working within the city will most likely continue to grow over the next several years.

Moving forward at light speed

In August 2017, the province  gave the city of Hamilton a green light on the well-debated Light Rail Transit project. In its current state, one of the LRT routes takes form along both Main and King Streets from McMaster University to Eastgate Square.

Major construction of the LRT lines are set to take place from 2019 to 2024, a five-year gap that may reduce traffic for business and host other complications that construction often sees.

Kerry Jarvi of the Downtown Business Improvement Area notes that the specifics of how this construction will take hold are still up in the air.

“I think most people are aware that there is going to be construction and that construction can be difficult. Our role [at the BIA] is to make it as seamless as possible,” said Jarvi. “We don’t have a lot of specifics on what exactly [construction] looks like yet. It could be that the whole route is up for the whole few years or it could just go block by block.”

Other business owners along King Street have voiced their concerns regarding how this construction can impact their business. Some businesses have come up with secondary access points to consider, depending on the nature of the construction. 

Hamilton rising

The revival of the downtown core, specifically throughout King Street, has brought an onslaught of change within its demographics. The former blue-collar, working class individuals who were once at its centre are now being overwhelmed by a rise in students, families and Torontonians who are looking to make Hamilton home.

In addition to the changing demographics that the city is seeing, dozens of investment companies are looking at Hamilton as a new hotspot for new opportunities in business or financing. Several vacant apartment units along King Street are seeing investment and restoration as Hamilton continues to grow, which ultimately increases the overall value of the buildings and testing the affordability of the lower storefronts.

This rise within these demographics and investment opportunities that Hamilton has to offer can ultimately lend to the increase in specialty business ventures, but the thriving nature of the city’s state of renewal will most definitely continue throughout the next several decades, which may challenge the state of independent businesses within the core.

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Author: Emily O'Rourke

Emily is a fourth year Honours Communication Studies student. She enjoys PR, meme culture, black coffee and dogs. Emily was also voted biggest klutz in her high school's graduating class. Find her riding around Hamilton on a white Sobi bike.