Sup­port and flak for Mayor’s city hall sign

Coun­cil­lors quickly ac­cept sign from pri­vate donors but what about pub­lic art pol­icy?

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - AN­DREW DRESCHEL An­drew Dreschel’s com­men­tary ap­pears Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day. adreschel@thes­pec.com 905-526-3495 @An­drewDreschel

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.

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