With all the construction and development that is taking place in Hamilton these days, it’s easy to forget that 25 years ago Hamilton was a stagnant city, trying to dig out from the loss of much of its industrial base. But even then, there were a handful of people who could see the possibilities for the community. One of them was Tony Battaglia, the man who more than any single person, spearheaded the transformation of Hamilton Airport from an underutilized sad sack enterprise to a thriving cargo and passenger terminal and major employment hub. His passing this week at age 64 of cancer was a reminder of the kind of risk-taker that Tony exemplified.
Prior to 1996 Hamilton Airport was managed by the City of Hamilton. At that time, it was a sleepy place– its passenger service consisted of a daily flight in a small turboprop to Pittsburgh and a similar service to Ottawa that operated in fits and starts. Through the 1980’s many small airlines had tried and failed to make a go of Hamilton. In hopes of breathing some life into the facility, the city decided to seek proposals on the privatization of the airport.
In 1996 Tony Battaglia headed a consortium called TradePort International. The TradePort bid was pitted against The Hamilton Airport Development Group headed by the Fracassi Brothers and Bobby Waxman of Phillip Environmental. This was 1996- when Phillip was still the darling of the Canadian financial media—its collapse was a couple of years away. The Phillip group engaged in aggressive public relations with full page newspaper ads promoting their bid.
Tony’s group took a more strategic approach, relying on a behind-the-scenes government relations strategy that was in part developed by the late Eric Cunningham. Ultimately the contact to operate the facility went to TradePort and Tony Battaglia became its first CEO.
(At that time, this writer had quit as news director of CHCH and had formed a Hamilton branch of Cunningham’s Toronto-based PR company. We started out with a few local clients—one of them TradePort.)
During Tony’s time at Hamilton Airport, he was responsible for attracting cargo tenants like UPS, getting the main runway rebuilt to accommodate the largest aircraft and lobbying Queen Park for the Highway 6 extension that serves the facility today. In 2006, he stepped aside telling reporters he was a builder, not an operator and wanted to get back into construction and development where he had found success before TradePort.
At that time Hamilton’s Director of Economic Development, Neil Everson said, “The TradePort-Hamilton deal has been recognized as one of the best public-private partnerships in Canada and that’s largely through Tony’s efforts.”
As another example of his ability to see possibilities when others saw only a white elephant, Tony was one of the original groups who first unveiled plans to convert the Royal Connaught into condominiums.
Tony was one of a group of Hamilton businessmen who bought the Hamilton Bulldogs Hockey team from George Gillett of the Montreal Canadiens. Current Bulldog owner Michael Andlauer remembers those early days of the franchise as it struggled to find its footing. “Tony was a great partner,” Andlauer recalled, “in the boardroom he had a very calming effect. Even when things were tense as the team lost a lot of money in the first year, there was a steadiness about Tony.”
Ron Foxcroft was a member of that original Bulldog ownership group and now is chairman of the Board of TradePort. He remembered Tony as “a courageous, innovative, visionary with a big heart.”
Peter Tice, a lawyer with Ross and McBride in Hamilton was part of the team that Tony assembled when TradePort was being formed. About his friend, he commented, “Tony was a wonderful person, full of good will, compassion, vision and enthusiasm. His family came first and the development of each of his four children, through graduations, weddings and the arrival of grandchildren, were the high points of his life. The airport was very high on his list of projects and commitments during his life time. He had the foresight to see the possible future for YHM and he began the process that has resulted in TradePort being as successful as it is today. He was also active in many other business and community endeavours and he brought passion, a keen mind and hard work to everything he tackled. He had a very high integrity standard and he refused to be petty or vengeful if something went off the tracks. He was kindly to all and a true friend.”
Tony Valeri and Tony Battaglia were friends from their 20’s on. Tony Battaglia was the emcee at Valeri’s wedding. Valeri recalls Battaglia being one of a group of close friends that encouraged and supported him throughout his political career.
“Tony has been my friend for over 40 years,” Valeri said. “He always a guy who led the way—blazed a trail.” Continuing he said. “He was curious, always wanting to learn more and never afraid to take on new challenges with conviction. Anyone that worked closely with Tony will tell you he was very smart, very passionate and genuinely a good person. Tony Battaglia was very kind—very thoughtful, I was lucky to have had him as a friend. As I go forward, I will lean on all that I learned from Tony.”
Francesco Antonio Battaglia leaves his four children, of Catherine (Kyle), Jenny (Joel), Joseph (Cristina) and Erica (Michael). He was Loving Nonno to Anthony, Vincent, Luca, Sienna and Baby B. Son of the late Caterina and Giuseppe Battaglia. Cherished brother of Frances (Francesco) Loiero and Zio to Sam and Joe. Devoted former husband to Rose, special cousin to Tina (Mario), loving companion to Maria and best friend to Paul.