Support and flak for Mayor’s city hall sign
Councillors quickly accept sign from private donors but what about public art policy?
Despite some angst over not complying with the city’s own public art rules, Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s plan to install a huge “HAMILTON” sign in front of city hall sailed by council’s initial scrutiny with flying colours.
The illuminated sign, which will cost up to $300,000, is billed as a Canada 150 gift to the city from private donors willing to pay the entire capital and installation cost.
The public works committee unanimously approved the sign Thursday and it’s expected to be ratified by council Friday. Because city hall is a designated heritage site, it also requires a green light from the heritage subcommittee. That could happen later this month.
No question the sign will be hard to miss or that it will bring some vitality to city hall’s sterile forecourt.
The letters, measuring 2.3 metres high and two metres deep, will be strung out over 22 metres along the west side of the forecourt.
On top of that, interior digital lighting can be changed to an almost limitless range of colours. For example, red and white for Canada Day, blue and yellow for Hamilton, orange for Halloween.
“I could see this sign as being one of the most photographed images in all of Hamilton,” PJ Mercanti told councillors.
Mercanti, CEO of Carmen’s Hospitality Group, and Laura Babcock of Powergroup Communications, are leading the fundraising on Eisenberger’s behalf.
Mercanti says about half a dozen donors have stepped up so far — including Carmen’s — and a handful of others have signalled they also want to contribute.
“We’re confident we’ll get to the finish line reasonably quickly.”
The names of the donors will be released after all approvals are in place. Mind you, not everyone is captivated by the plan. Some see it as purely derivative, a slavish copy of other illuminated signs in other cities, notably Toronto’s at Nathan Phillips Square.
Councillors Jason Farr and Lloyd Ferguson like the sign. Farr says it will be “wonderful selfie opportunity.” Ferguson thinks it will enhance city hall and be a destination for visitors.
But Farr also got a couple of emails questioning why the project bypassed the city’s usual public art process, which includes community consultation and competitive bids. Ferguson points out an Ancaster sign builder wanted an opportunity to bid on the contract but couldn’t because it was sole sourced.
Eisenberger says he himself chose the designer — Mike Kukucska of Hamilton Scenic Specialty Inc. — based on his track record of building and installing several public art installations across the city.
According to the mayor, an open process would take many months and possibly end up with the same result. For his part, Mercanti notes the donors believe the design has a unique artistic element while a “more onerous process could delay things tremendously.”
“There was a lot of fear that this could become one of those things that never gets done if we put it through a process of that nature.”
There may be some truth to that. Not to mention the awkwardness that comes from staring a gift horse in the mouth: Yes, we’ll take your money, but you have to jump through these hoops first and, by the way, we’re changing both your idea and the site.
On the other hand, why have a public art master plan if you’re not going to adhere to its principles when large amounts of money are waved under your nose?
To his credit, Coun. Sam Merulla has taken a stab at reconciling the two. The committee unanimously approved his motion to draft a specific policy for dealing with future private donations.
Merulla believes some of the concerns about how this played out are legitimate. He isn’t prejudging what the new policy should say. But he hopes the guidelines can be “cooperative” in the sense of respecting both the civic spirit of the donors and concerns over the lack of due process.
If city staff manage to pull that balancing act off, it’ll be a work of art in its own right.