Hamilton – an example of Canada’s changing economy


During my early childhood growing up in Western Canada, I recall reading in my grade five history textbook about the Canadian Mecca of manufacturing located in Hamilton, Ontario. This was at a time when the Stelco and Dofasco steel mills were roaring in production and Hamilton was home to big-name manufacturing icons such as Otis Elevator, Firestone, Westinghouse and more. However, the world started to change very dramatically in the late 70’s and early 80’s following a major North American recession; Hamilton’s manufacturing base started to close down and move elsewhere.

Hamilton still remains home to two steel mills, now employing only a small fraction of the 20,000 plus people employed during the pinnacle of their production years. Today, both mills have been dramatically impacted by our current recession with Stelco (now U.S. Steel) in total shutdown and Dofasco (now Arcelor-Mittal) in major slow down mode.

There is no doubt, the economic and cultural landscape in Hamilton has changed dramatically. ‘Steel town’ is becoming ‘health town.’ In the year 2009, the health-care sector is quickly becoming the largest employment sector in Hamilton with some 38,000 employees in total. The city’s single largest employer — with close to 10,000 employees — is Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), a multi-site teaching hospital.

As we all know, the business of health care is terrifically employee-intense. It’s a service-based industry that remains on a high-growth trajectory as the population ages and as people continue to live longer.

With annual spending of more than $1 billion on clinical services, Hamilton Health Sciences is a major economic engine in south central Ontario. The fastest growing part of the hospital is not clinical programs, but its research enterprise. During the last fiscal year, Hamilton Health Sciences’ research revenues were $186 million. This is an increase of more than 20 per cent over the previous year and 100 per cent over just five years ago.

In Hamilton, the momentum continues to build. One of the highlights of the past year was a visit from our Prime Minister who announced HHS as one of the few hospitals in Canada to receive a major investment through the Canada Foundation for Innovation research awards to expand our research infrastructure. This investment award has resulted in the construction of a soon-to-be-opened $100 million Cardiac, Vascular & Stroke Research Institute. With this new facility, we’ll be well positioned to grow our world-class research team by a further 50 per cent.

To drive by the north Hamilton location of the new research building, co-located with a brand new, purpose-built Rehabilitation/Acquired Brain Injury Centre and the Hamilton General Hospital, one can clearly see how this once industrial core is going through an unprecedented transformation.

Other major health-care construction projects in Hamilton have stimulated the local economy well in front of any recession-busting strategies. In addition to our new research building and rehab centre, HHS has a major redevelopment underway at the Henderson General Hospital site and a series of smaller projects at the McMaster University Medical Centre site. The total value of all of these projects is in excess of $500 million. At the same time, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton has recently completed a new tower and has recently received approval for another mega project to renew and replace the old Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital facility.

New high-tech buildings, growing research, expanding clinical programs, and a changing workforce — this is the nature of a modernizing Hamilton.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in capital project investment has dramatically changed today’s skyline view in Hamilton from smokestacks to construction cranes. The more impressive economic change on the landscape relates to the people and the families coming to Hamilton and joining the community.

Knowledge-based employees in health care and biomedical research are often highly educated and highly paid. These employees, their spouses and children are also highly educated and potential high income earners. These families have money to spend — they eat in the city’s restaurants and shop at the malls. They enjoy the arts and the abundance of leisure activities in the area. For most, Hamilton is a well kept secret to outsiders. (You most likely did not know that Hamilton has more waterfalls than any urban city in North America and sits adjacent to a beautiful escarpment full of trees and parks?) Its economy is energized as it moves away from manufacturing and becomes increasingly based in service and high-tech industries.

In fact, Hamiltonians will say that the best thing about Hamilton is that “it is not Toronto.” And there must be some truth to this since increasingly people are choosing the affordability and lifestyle offered in Hamilton. According to real estate expert Don Campbell, who recently appeared on CBC’s The Hour, Hamilton is the number one place in Canada right now to invest in property. Among other things, including plans for improved commuter access to the Toronto core via light rail transit, proximity to Lake Ontario and other location characteristics and the changing nature of the economy and culture — not to mention McMaster which has become Canada’s most research intensive university — makes Hamilton a great choice for people looking for a challenging career in health care mixed with a good balance of family and fun.

Although, I’m not originally from Hamilton and I’ve worked in several other cities across Canada, I’m not surprised to see folks originally from Hamilton returning from elsewhere. And although even Hamiltonians may sometimes need to leave to come back to appreciate all that this city has to offer; when they do, they become the greatest champions of this place that’s “not Toronto.” Now, the only thing left to do is to let the NHL commissioner in on the secret — Hamilton is also the greatest un-served hockey market in the world.