The importance of public ownership for Hamilton’s grand estate

In the field of heritage conservation, certainty fuels progress. It provides a stable foundation needed to plan for the long term, nail down commitments and secure investors.

That’s why Friends of Auchmar has been pushing hard to end years of handwringing over the future of our name- sake 19th century property on Hamilton Mountain at the corner of West 5th and Fennell. The nagging ownership question — public, private or not-for-profit — coupled with on-again, off-again disposal efforts have produced little more than a chilling effect on the renewal process.

We share the belief, held by a growing number of people, that the time has come to take a collective stand on Auchmar. Thankfully, our message is being heard.

Our position has been consistent since our formation in 2012: Keep the entire Auchmar Estate (the buildings, perimeter walls, grounds, artifacts, etc.) in public hands and then engage multiple partners to implement a shared vision within the conditions set out in the conservation easement administered by the Ontario Heritage Trust.

Our case to maintain public ownership boils down to four main points:
1. It ensures access to ongoing expertise and resources required to sustain momentum and achieve quality outcomes;
2. It builds on significant public investments to date to preserve and stabilize the property;
3. It will help unlock future investments, particularly from the private and philanthropic sectors; and,
4. It will greatly reduce the risk of a stalled renewal initiative.

And when it comes to engaging players required to rehabilitate and operate Auchmar as a vibrant community asset, we’re in favour of assembling a multi-sector team of public, not-for-profit, philanthropic and private sector partners.

In fact, a project the size and scope of Auchmar demands an integrated, team-based approach. And there’s no shortage of opportunities calling out for collaboration, including possibilities for creative programming and year- round revenue generation.

In May of this year we presented our case during a community meeting at The Hamilton Club. The gathering drew a capacity audience and featured an opening talk by McMaster University assistant business professor Marvin Ryder.

Commenting on Auchmar through a business lens, Ryder reiterated the importance of determining a predictable path forward that begins with a realistic vision of an effective adaptive reuse backed by a sound business plan. Again, certainty was cited as a major success factor.

This meeting helped galvanize community support for maintaining and leveraging public ownership of Auchmar. It also contributed to a game-changing decision made last month by Hamilton City Council.

Auchmar was centre stage at the June 15 meeting of the General Issues Committee. City staff had prepared a report recommending that Council resume past efforts to sell Auchmar through a real estate disposal process. Yet delegations by key organizations — the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, Heritage Hamilton Foundation, Hamilton Mountain Heritage Society, Durand Neighbourhood Association and Friends of Auchmar — helped turn the tide.

Perhaps the biggest impact was made by representatives of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (Rileys) who presented draft plans for a multi-phase, adaptive reuse of the entire Auchmar Estate. Initial plans call for a museum, convention centre, a facility for wounded soldiers, a restored public garden, brew pub and a gift shop operated by Friends of Auchmar.

A major strength of the proposal is the historical connection to Isaac Buchanan (1810-1883), builder of Auchmar and founding Commanding Officer of the Rileys. This link, combined with the regiment’s strong community presence and access to potential funding required to realize the project, made a powerful impression on City Councillors. That said, it will be important for all parties to determine what’s permitted given the constraints of the conservation easement.

Ultimately, Council voted to pass a motion with language that includes, “that the Auchmar Estate and grounds remain in public ownership of the City of Hamilton.” Moreover, the accepted motion states:
“That City staff in the Real Estate Section and the Planning and Economic Development Department be autho- rized and directed to explore a long term lease or operat- ing and management agreement, which is to include that capital repairs and maintenance be the financial responsibility of the lessee or the manager/operator, with any interested non-profit private parties — such as the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, XIIIth Regiment Auchmar Trust or other not-for-profit organizations — and report back to the General Issues Committee on the progress toward that end in six months.”

Additional details covered in the motion direct City staff to continue with stabilization work at Auchmar and “that any proposed use aligns with the provisions in the Heritage Conservation Easement …”

In the event no lessee or management and operations interest can be secured after a period of one year, Council would direct City staff to report to the General Issues Committee with a work plan for the adaptive reuse of the Auchmar Estate. Friends of Auchmar see many positives in this step forward by City Council, especially the certainty created by resolving the issue of long term ownership.

Moving ahead as stewards of the integrity of the Auchmar Estate, we remain committed to working with a range of partners, including the City of Hamilton, Ontario Heritage Trust and various prospective lessees/operators. Our thanks extend to all on City Council — including Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Ward 8 Councillor Terry Whitehead for their progressive leadership on this file — and to City staff members Anna Bradford and Ian Kerr-Wilson for their tireless devotion to Auchmar.

To learn more, visit www.friendsofauchmar.ca

FRIENDS OF AUCHMAR provides support to and promotes interest in Auchmar in meeting its mandate to educate present and future generations of Hamiltonians on the history of Auchmar. Article written by Richard Allen