Hamilton is in the midst of an unprecedented evolution. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the heart of the downtown core.
In recent years, the area’s streetscape has been transformed by rapid commercial and residential development and a red-hot real estate market. A swath of new restaurants, condos, cafes, and other businesses have dramatically altered the look and feel of the area. Several DeGroote alumni have been driving this change in a major way.
“We’re firing on all cylinders right now, especially in the downtown core. It’s a bit of a Renaissance,” says Norm Schleehahn, B.Com ’91. He’s been Manager of Business Development at the City of Hamilton for the past decade, and has a front-row seat to all the action.
“It’s not all driven by outside investment, either,” Schleehahn continues. “It’s really important for us to retain McMaster and DeGroote alumni, and have them take an active role in shaping the future of our community through their business activities.”
A few blocks north of City Hall, Tej Sandhu, B.Com. ’10, is busy staking his own claim in the core. He’s spent the past several months preparing a large low-rise building on James Street North to house MERIT Brewing Co.
The business is billed as a taproom and eatery focused on sausage and “beer-friendly bites,” complete with a rear patio, retail store, and 14 rotating beer offerings crafted in-house. It officially opened to the public in May – not far from where fellow business alumnus Paven Bratch, B.Com. ’86, opened popular eatery Radius back in 2012, and helped kick-start the downtown restaurant boom.
“MERIT wouldn’t happen anywhere but Hamilton,” says Sandhu, a native of Chicago who worked in the music industry in various capacities after graduating from DeGroote.
“Central to the idea to start MERIT was returning to Hamilton, and James Street North in particular. Art was the driving factor for the revival in the downtown core. Beer is our art, and the opportunity to add to the scene developing downtown was really exciting.”
Seeing more business activity in the city’s downtown is inspiring, he continues. The amount of shops thriving in once-vacant spaces is heartening for Sandhu. “Hamiltonians are so eager to support new businesses,” he offers. “Investing in your community means your community will invest in you.”
Like Sandhu, Ryan Moran, BA ’07 & MBA ’12, maintains a deep affinity for Hamilton. After finishing his graduate studies at DeGroote, he helped launch the bustling coworking space CoMotion on King, just east of the city’s historic centre at King and James.
The 10,000-square-foot building, all but derelict by the time Moran and his partners took the keys, was home to The Hamilton Spectator until the mid-1970s. It’s since been transformed into a hip and inviting office space filled with exposed brick, natural light, and sleek furniture.
What exactly is coworking? It’s much more than simply renting a desk, Moran explains. Tenants are encouraged to mingle with one another and share ideas and expertise, not just resources and amenities.
The goal is to foster a thriving community of businesses and entrepreneurs under one roof. CoMotion has since become the largest co-working community of small businesses and freelancers this side of Toronto, boasting upwards of 100 members between its original downtown locale and recent offshoot on Cumberland Avenue, CoMotion 302.
“All CoMotion Group partners, if not Hamilton born and raised, are at least hardcore Hamilton believers. We want nothing more than to see the city be what we know it could,” Moran explains.
“Ultimately, King Street, and particularly that core stretch, will once again be the jewel of the city. As surrounding streets and communities in Hamilton turnover, King Street, though not without bumps along the way, will also undergo an amazing transformation back into the stunning urban centre that it can be. We’re thrilled to be part of that.”
One of Moran’s partners in the venture is Tammy Hwang, B.Com. ’05. She’s also seen the ups and downs of Hamilton over the years, but feels the city’s brand is definitely on the rise. “I graduated from McMaster when Hamilton was probably at its lowest economic turn,” Hwang recalls.
“I left Hamilton for several years in order to explore what other parts of the world are doing. When I came back in 2010, there was a group of young professionals that were hell bent on making things happen. It was so refreshing to feel this kind of activism and energy.”
According to Hwang, part of that energy comes from alumni like Sandhu and Moran who chose to remain in Hamilton after graduation. “Our young professional ecosystem is strong, and we have so many leaders that feel empowered that they can make a difference in Hamilton,” she continues.
“When I think about my team at CoMotion, four out of the six are McMaster grads, one is a Mohawk College grad, and the last is from York University. It’s a testament to how McMaster and Mohawk have prepared alumni to give back and invest in our community.”
On a larger scale, McMaster has reinforced its commitment to the downtown core by way of two major projects – the $84.6 million David Braley Health Sciences Centre at Main and Bay, and the One James North (OJN) office complex atop Jackson Square.
The former is home to the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine, as well as the City of Hamilton’s Public Health Services, while the latter houses the McMaster Centre for Continuing Education, University Advancement, Financial Services, and several other departments.
“There was a time, not too long ago, when McMaster didn’t have a presence downtown,” Schleehahn says. “Now, the University is having a big impact on the area with some of these larger projects. Plus, so many students coming out of McMaster, whether they’re from the DeGroote School Business or any other faculty, seem to have this entrepreneurial spirit. That’s what ties everything together.”