Plans in motion to develop mixed-use Hamilton Studio District


Hamilton has the third-largest cluster of film businesses in Canada and Aeon Studio Group and Momentum Developments plan to build on that fact in a big way through the development of the mixed-use Hamilton Studio District.

Aeon and the City of Hamilton are currently negotiating the purchase of the city-owned Barton-Tiffany lands. The site is located by the intersection of Barton Street West and Tiffany Street, and the new West Harbour GO Transit station near the bay in Central Hamilton.

Aeon is a developer and operator of film, television and digital media studios and related places.

Aeon partner Jeff Anders, at an Oct. 29 presentation at the West Harbour GO Transit station, said the size of the site could range from 12 to 20 acres. He said all parties want to finalize the deal as quickly as possible.

Once complete, the long-term Hamilton Studio District project is expected to include:

* a film and television production campus with purpose-built modern soundstages, production offices, support facilities and a back lot;

* other studios for post-production, animation, visual effects, game development and music;

* a crew training facility for the local talent pool that could also play a role in job creation;

* office buildings for film industry suppliers and media, digital and technology companies;

* collaborative and creative workspaces geared towards the artistic and creative industry communities;

* two residential towers;

* retail space;

* and pedestrian-oriented public space.

“The city has been absolutely visionary and unbelievably supportive in the pursuit of this,” said Anders. “We want to make sure that we have some soundstage capacity open for the city to begin to build this industry, and the momentum it already has, as quickly as possible.

“We have plans to launch our first soundstage building, which would be a conversion of an existing space, by the summer of this coming year.

“There are big companies from L.A. and elsewhere that are really desperate for a lot of space, so they can use Canada to make film and TV. We want to be up and running and leveraging the talent in Hamilton and just getting the ball rolling.”

If the acquisition of the land goes through, Anders said it will likely be two or three years before anything new is built and open for business as part of a phased approach to construction.

“We’re pushing really hard with all of our consultants to get all of the entitlements in place,” said Momentum founding partner Brock Boehler. “Going through that process takes time and construction of a site this big takes years and years.”

Anders declined to discuss either the potential cost of the project or how it will be financed. “We can’t discuss that right now, but we’ll be happy to share more details when we can.”

Hamilton’s existing film, television activity

City of Hamilton creative industries lead Debbie Spence said there are more than 900 film businesses in Hamilton with a labour force of more than 9,000 who live in the city. That places it third in the country behind Toronto and Vancouver, she added.

Director Guillermo del Toro’s Academy Award-winning film The Shape of Water was shot in Hamilton, as is The Handmaid’s Tale and The Umbrella Academy among other Netflix shows.

In 2018, the City of Hamilton saw a 50 per cent increase from the previous year in filming location permits. That number has increased again by 17 per cent so far this year, according to Spence.

“Film is an economic driver, spending $60 million directly into Hamilton’s local economy in 2018 on things like location rentals, hotel stays, productions and services,” said Spence.

“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry in Toronto, but all of the facilities that house the production of TV and film are operating at basically zero per cent vacancy and have been for the last couple of years,” said Anders. “Toronto saw hundreds of jobs lost last year alone just because there was no building for Netflix or Disney or anyone else to set up shop there.”

That’s one reason why Hamilton, located 60 kilometres west of Toronto, appeals to Aeon and Momentum.

Anders said the city lacks the traffic congestion of Toronto and crews can take advantage of a wide range of distinctive physical settings in a relatively short period of time. Because land is cheaper in Hamilton, studio space can be offered at a lower price.

“With the infrastructure for film and TV production in Toronto, most of it is forgettable at this point,” said Anders. “It’s low-quality and what we plan to build will be at the very top of the market.”

Attractive incentives

A favourable currency exchange rate and incentives from the federal and provincial governments are big reasons why foreign production crews film in Ontario.

Anders said productions filmed in Toronto can qualify for tax breaks representing up to 20 per cent of their total production costs. If shoots occur outside the core Toronto zone for a certain amount of days, they qualify for a regional tax credit that adds an extra two per cent, boosting the rebate to 22 per cent.

The City of Hamilton offers its own incentives, which Boehler said is also key to the future development of Hamilton Studio District.

“There’s the brownfield incentive program, which can help to recover environmental remediation costs, which is going to be paramount for our site. There’s also a development charge exemption, which currently stands at 60 per cent, which is very helpful.

“Looking at the City of Kitchener, there are a number of cranes in the sky right now,” he explained, pointing out another example of incentives promoting growth in a South/Central Ontario city.

“The reason for that is in the core there was a development charge exemption up until February of this year. That ended and now there are probably 10 tower cranes in the sky, which is a record for Kitchener and really shows that incentives help.”

Boehler said Waterloo-based Momentum has four multiresidential buildings with close to 1,000 units under construction, as well as the Glove Box office building in downtown Kitchener that it’s partnered on with KingSett Capital. It has primarily focused on developing in Waterloo Region to this point.