Marni Jackson

By Lyn Drummond

5 December 2011 – A unique scheme to revitalise the NSW city of  Newcastle by turning buildings that are vacant, disused or pending development into creative  showcases has prompted international interest and resulted in similar schemes in other states.

So much interest has been generated in Renew Newcastle that founder, Marcus Westbury has created Renew Australia a new national social enterprise designed to catalyse community renewal, economic development and the arts and creative industries across the country.

Its managers work with communities and property owners to take otherwise empty shops, offices, commercial and public buildings and use them short term for artists, creative projects and community initiatives.

South Australia’s capital has a similar scheme, Renew Adelaide, as does Townsville in Queensland and Geelong, Victoria.

Westbury has recently been to Christchurch, New Zealand to discuss utilising the empty spaces for activities such as open air libraries – ideas which could instil new life into the city centre following the devastating earthquakes this year.

A similar program is the UK’s Meanwhile Project, which began in 2009.

Areas of Newcastle have been transformed through a simple strategy based on the temporary and low cost creative use of some of the more than 150 empty buildings.

Less than two years since the Newcastle project began, more than 70 new businesses and initiatives have been seeded. The city was hailed by Lonely Planet magazine as one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2011 due to its creative community.

Renew Newcastle solves a very specific problem that has plagued the city for over a decade. While the long term prospects for redevelopment of Newcastle’s CBD are good, in the meantime many sites are boarded up, falling apart, vandalised or decaying because there is no short term plan for their use and no one taking responsibility for them. RN cleans up these buildings and gets the city active and used again.

It provides a fee for service based training, consultancy, research and other services to councils, state and federal government, economic development professionals, developers and property owners.

Revenue made from this allows its managers to subsidise services, to offer seed funding and support for artists and community groups, and free and subsidised training for community builders.

It is backed by supporters from local, state and federal government, the University of Newcastle and the local business community.

Its enthusiastic founder Westbury is a cultural project manager, festival director and media maker born in Newcastle who initiated the annual This Is Not Art festival which he ran from 1998 until 2002.

While working as a director of the cultural festival of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, he travelled to other industrial cities all over the world and explored the way they were using cultural activity to create renewal.

Marcus Westbury

Marni Jackson has been general manager of RN since 2009. She worked as the festival co-ordinator for This Is Not Art from 2005 – 2008.

She told The Fifth Estate, some of the enterprises were retail.

“They could be used by photographers making frames, for fashion jewellery, but it needs to be an artistic or creative enterprise of some kind. Something being made here and not imported,” Jackson says.

“We are now after nearly three years at the stage of seeking new property owners to come on board with initiatives.

“We have appointed Ben Towers who has a background in real estate to target property owners to do this. We concentrate on the CBD only: Pacific, Tudor, Hunter and King Streets and the Honeysuckle area around the water front.

Jackson says the project was ongoing, “until there is no more demand.”

“We are getting very good support from the state and local government, the residents have embraced the idea that local people have decided to do something; roll their sleeves up and contribute skills,” Ms Jackson said.

“Many remember the golden days of Newcastle, shopping with their grandparents, the real treat on Saturdays, they were lamenting the demise of the main street where shops were being boarded up.

“They are happy to see energy being put into surrounding businesses, happier to have active, open shops around them.”.

Although BHP closed its operations in Newcastle 12 years ago creating  unemployment, the demise of the centre was more to do with changing retail habits, with – as has happened in many city centres – shops decentralising into suburban undercover malls, leaving behind vacancies and underemployment.

“There are lots of hidden space, often upstairs in buildings,” Jackson said.  “Property owners don’t get paid: we are borrowing space on peppercorn rent from them. We do repairs if needed, for example, broken windows, painting,  holes in ceilings, fixing old carpet.

“The building then looks better for potential tenants. In most instances exchange of property agreement is $1.  We prevent graffiti taking place.”.

Creative work in unused space

Jackson says Renew Newcastle is not about turning the city into another suburban shopping centre or filling every shop with one type of gallery.

It is about making Newcastle a place with a wide variety of unique creative things and energies and getting the best of the city on display, she says.

Renew Newcastle makes short lists of potential projects and works with the property owners – who ultimately make the final decision about what they are willing to make their properties available for – to make the final selections.

In Newcastle, this project was so successful properties that had been vacant for upwards of a decade have begun to re-attract commercial tenants. The volume of vandalism has dropped substantially.

Foot traffic and, with it, new businesses, began to reappear within 18 months. It was so successful the partnership between Renew Newcastle and GPT resulted in an Australian Arts Business Award.

How does the Renew model work?
It works by removing the risk and expense of temporarily reactivating empty buildings. A simple, short-term lease is used to protect property owners from risk, legal complications and allow them to temporarily re-activate spaces awaiting redevelopment or a commercial tenancy.

Similar schemes
Renew Adelaide is targeting the city’s west end and surrounds.  It installs creative entrepreneurs into empty buildings on a non-profit basis.

Renew Adelaide builds from its parent project in Newcastle, run with the support of the GPT property group, which substantially revitalises the character of the Hunter Street Mall.

Renew Adelaide essentially  “borrows” otherwise empty buildings and spaces from landlords on a non-commercial basis while they’re in between tenants or awaiting development.

It does that through a rolling 30 day non-commercial lease or agreement. This gives Renew participants the right to access the space, although they must be able to move out within 30 days.

Renew tenants take the space as is and are liable for any costs if it can’t be returned in the same state.

Gold Spaces

Queensland’s Connecting Southern Gold Coast is also overseeing the establishment of an independent not-for-profit organisation under a “Renew Gold Coast” banner, funded by the Gold Coast City Council following a workshop in the area by Mr Westbury earlier this year.

CSGC addresses business development initiatives in the six areas of the Southern Gold Coast region – Currumbin, Currumbin Waters, Tugun, Bilinga, Kirra and Coolangatta.

The “Renew” organisation, to be known as “Gold Spaces’” will coordinate licence agreements between property owners and local artists so artists can temporarily showcase their work and test business ideas in vacant buildings. Details goldcoastspaces@gmail.com

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