The Front Lines of City Building

Without question there’s a forward momentum in Hamilton. From a bird’s eye view, we can easily pinpoint many areas of the city where small and large-scale investments have helped transform — or will soon transform – entire neighbourhoods.

Hamilton is in the midst of an era of city building that we haven’t seen in a generation or more. Those who are driving this renaissance are numerous. They are the developers, the restauranteurs, the artists, investors, and small business owners. They are also City staff who support growth and development, such as the planners, the engineers, and business development officers.

But often overlooked in this list are the city builders in municipal by-law enforcement. By-law enforcement is a core function of the City’s Planning and Economic Development Department. Why? Because it is essential to city building. None of our success happens if the city is a mess, pure and simple.

First impressions speak volumes. Derelict buildings, unkempt properties, uncared-for streets – these are the signs of civic disinterest that can chase away the investor considering the purchase of land; the entrepreneur looking to set up a business; or the house-hunter looking to settle down roots. Making sure that doesn’t happen is the role of the City’s by-law enforcement officers.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with two such officers – Jim Gordon and James Buffett – about their role as city-builders.

Jim Gordon is a lifelong Hamiltonian who attended Mohawk College for Data Processing and Radio Broadcasting. He worked for the Province’s Ministry of the Attorney General in 1993 before moving to Hamilton in 2000 and starting with by-law enforcement in 2001. Since 2007, Jim has been involved in the Licensing Division, dealing with business permits and licences.

James Buffett has been part of the Hamilton community for 30 years. He comes from a family of public servants and graduated with a Sociology degree from the University of Windsor. James’ career pursuits were always in enforcement, with more of a focus on social service and an aim to engage and better his community. James began as a Youth Services Worker with Wesley Urban Ministries before joining the City as a Special Enforcement Officer in 2009, advancing to his present role as Supervisor.

Jim, James and their colleagues have a tough job. They have to uphold over 50 City by-laws for noise, vital services, property standards, zoning, and so on. In 2014, municipal by-law enforcement responded to 13,300 complaints for property standards and yard maintenance; monitored over 250 buildings on the City’s vacant building registry; and investigated over 1,600 illegal dumping complaints: work that is just as critical to city-building as any infrastructure investment or development application approval.

I have heard from several developers, especially in the downtown and lower city, about challenges they face attracting homebuyers or investors to their projects if the nearby properties are dilapidated. And paying attention to issues like these can be a “virtuous cycle”.

“We see it all the time,” said James Buffett. “One or two properties in a neighbourhood improve, which starts to create a greater sense of neighbourhood pride. We get more calls about property standards violations in the neighbourhood. We get involved, those properties improve, and more investment is attracted. It’s a cycle. We saw it on Locke Street, James Street North and on Ottawa Street.”

The role of the City’s by-law enforcement officers as city-builders doesn’t end there. These officers are also responsible for making sure businesses are properly licensed to operate. At first glance, regulating businesses, requiring proper licensing, and shutting them down if they don’t comply may seem the exact opposite of city-building. But according to Jim, it’s all in how you approach the job.

“Help first, charge second … that is our mantra.”

Jim and James speak passionately about their true role as educators and business facilitators first and foremost. On a typical day, they and their colleagues are out talking to business owners, explaining the ins and outs of City by- laws, and making helpful referrals for other City programs and services.

Take the case of Narula’s. The owners of the Barton Street Indian restaurant hoped to open their adjoining banquet hall for New Year’s Eve 2013; however, a business license had not yet materialized. The holidays approached and the City of Hamilton neared its annual shutdown period, weighing on not just Narula’s owners but officer Jim Gordon as well. Jim took it upon himself to pull together the resources and City staff to get the license for Narula’s issued…on Christmas Eve.

It’s rarely talked about, and rarely celebrated, but there are dozens of stories of by-law enforcement officers doing just what Jim did.

“We want to see businesses in this City thrive,” said Jim Gordon. “That’s the exciting part of our job. We are on the front-lines and are well-positioned to help businesses. Public safety must be protected, so yes, we sometimes have to put on our ‘enforcement hats’. But really, we look at ourselves as business facilitators.”

Crime prevention could well be another benefit of by- law enforcement work. It’s a phenomenon known as the ‘broken windows theory’ that states: “maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism…helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening” (Wikipedia). It has been a central pillar of urban revitalization in cities as diverse as Medellin and New York City, and it is playing out in Hamilton as well.

I like to think of my department – Planning and Economic Development – as the Department of City-Building. City Council has tasked my department to deliver on a mandate of economic growth, which includes growing the non-residential assessment base and creating favourable conditions to meet the Province’s growth targets for Ham- ilton of 780,000 people and 350,000 jobs by 2041.

To achieve this, we need to focus on faster, more predictable approvals; outstanding customer service; creating a community where people want to live, do business and invest; and attract, retain and develop the best talent. The City’s by-law enforcement officers are key players in all of that.

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