More and more frequently these days, it feels as though Canberra is growing in reverse, heading backwards.
As the city grows, you expect things to grow with it – but instead of more shops, restaurants, bars and venues opening more and more ‘for lease’ signs are popping up. Some places have been vacant for longer than I care to remember. Canberra’s situation is not unique, and it’s certainly not as bad as some.
During my first ever trip to Newcastle earlier this year I was amazed, like the majority of first-time visitors, by the number of vacant buildings throughout the main streets of the city. It was a veritable ghost town.
Delving a little deeper I realised this was not strictly the case. Scattered throughout the stretches of unused real estate, hidden within the shells of heritage structures, were exciting little shops, cafes and galleries; earnest realisations of creative endeavours. I was at once thrilled and thoroughly confused. How could these tiny, left-of-centre ventures afford such prime commercial spaces? And if they could afford it, why couldn’t anyone else?
What I had yet to realise was that these weren’t feats of squatting or happy coincidences in a freak local economy. These small businesses were bright tiny flowers in the harsh soils of a garden lovingly planted and tended by Renew Newcastle.
To begin at the beginning: Marcus Westbury grew up in Newcastle. Although he moved away, following the cultural call of Melbourne, he was as dismayed as any local to see the Newcastle city centre collapsing in upon itself. In a return visit he counted 130 visibly vacant buildings along Newcastle’s Hunter and King Streets alone. As a founder of the legendary This Is Not Art festival, Westbury was no stranger to mobilising the DIY creative energies the city had to offer. In 2008 he took it a step further, founding the Renew Newcastle project on the back of a bold idea and his own credit card.
Westbury hoped to fill unused and run-down spaces with innovative creative projects for cheap rent, but here was a problem: owners of commercial spaces were unable to lease their properties at current market rental rates, yet to lower rents would undermine the overall value of their property. A tangled web of economics, public liability, taxes and property law had created an impossible situation. It was undesirable to allow the use of spaces free of charge and ultimately cost the owner less money for their property to sit empty and rotting than it would to lease it to a tennant.
Quickly realising that his vision would be harder won than initially thought, Westbusry was undeterred, and enlisted the help of a lawyer. With this expertise on hand, he began to piece together a plan that would bypass all the current obstacles facing creative small business. He created an innovative, foolproof scheme that any smart property owner would be unable to refuse. It was called Renew Newcastle.
The pitch was this: The Renew Newcastle team would identify a creative project that would fit the intended use of a vacant property. They would then draw up a license agreement for this space, between interested property owners, Renew Newcastle, and the prospective project heads.
Unlike a lease, a license agreement offers the tennants no rights, and the owners no obligations. The occupation of the space is designed to be transitional – an agreement runs for a term of thirty days, with the option to rollover, until the owner comes up with a better usage for their space (maybe lease, sell or demolish). The usually crippling issue of Public Liability is managed by insuring all ventures under the banner of Renew Newcastle.
In practise, this means the owner agrees that the space may be used for thirty days at a time. Those wishing to use it are entirely responsible for bringing the property to usable condition – cleaning, conducting repairs, painting and installing fixtures. The ‘tenannts’ are then also responsible for their own security and ongoing maintenance. So, although the owners receive no financial returns during this time, their vacant property is kept in good working condition, protected from vandals, squatters and creepy crawlies, and given the appearance of being an attractive and desirable commercial space.
In broader terms, the downtown areas benefit from an improved appearance and an influx in traffic, supporting the arts and bolstering the local economy. For owners, it offers a favourable short-term solution in regards to tax, property values and insurance. Ultimately, it is in their interests that the city centre is kept alive, to ensure any future in their investments.
To date, Renew Newcastle has succeeded in housing over thirty creative projects in the city, and the number continues to expand. Some of the highlights include Bird In The Hand (a zine Store), Totoro’s Tea House, Vox Cyclops (an independent record store) and a host of galleries and artist studio spaces. Some of these are already seeing possibilities as viable independent businesses. If a venture finds itself successful, and begins to turn over a profit, Renew Newcastle is able to offer them support and assistance to move into their own ‘proper’ venue for commercial rental rates.
Like me, visitors to This Is Not Art in Newcastle this year would have happily chanced upon many of these projects without ever questioning how they came to exist. Like the festival itself, these creative ventures are driven by some of the countries most tireless and passionate creatives, backed by the ingenuity and hard work of Renew Newcastle. But most incredibly, the entire scheme operates with next to no funds. Participants back themselves financially as needed, but for the most part rely on volunteers, in-kind support and thinking outside of the square. Renew Newcastle itself was also entirely self-funded, but following its initial success and worldwide exposure has been catching the attention of the the City Council and the State Government. Slowly the scheme is starting to receive the recognition and support that is warranted.
The Renew Newcastle project has completely renewed my faith in the power of good ideas, hard work and passion, whether or not money is involved. The scheme itself has the potential to work in other cities, all over the world, and as a die-hard Canberran, watching our city become sterile and empty, I am at once jealous and inspired.
For the background story, news and events, and a full list of projects, visit the Renew Newcastle site