Honeysuckle's waterfront park, Newcastle

Newcastle is a thing of intrigue for Sydneysiders and others who take more than passing interest in this major regional city. 

All eyes these days are on how to bring it closer to Sydney and the rest of Australia through various schemes to speed up the trains – at least a bit; because no longer do we talk about “very fast trains” but “faster trains”. Talk in the past of a fast ferry though seems to have sunk, if the pun be forgiven.

Why it’s particularly interesting for readers of The Fifth Estate is that it’s the commercial heartland of NSW’s coal mining region. Drive to Singleton for instance as The Fifth Estate did during the summer break and be taken aback by the loud billboard at the town’s entrance with incongruous images of solar panels next to those of white goods. Courtesy of Swiss based mining giant Glencore, it turns out. And, we’re guessing with the intention to rebrand coal to something clean, necessary, good to have.

On the opposite side of the road is the longest coal train we’d ever seen. 

Sean Holmes has been living in the commercial heart of this Hunter Region, at Newcastle since 2016, when he upped sticks and moved from Sydney with his job with engineering and consulting outfit WSP. 

We caught up with Holmes as he shared news that he’d been recently promoted from associate to associate director. A good opportunity, we figured, for a glance at what kind of work his company is doing in the area and perhaps tap his perceptions, as a local, of what he thinks about the big issues on the rise.

We already know that the Hunter Valley is high on the state government’s agenda with Treasurer and Energy Minister Matt Kean signalling his intention to see heavy industry transition its energy source to renewables. And it’s also high on the agenda for Beyond Zero Emissions which has ambitious visions for clean jobs to replace those in the coal industry.

According to locals we spoke to during our visit there’s strong support for mining and, still, scepticism about global warming. The truth might be glaringly obvious that coal’s days are numbered but it’s not the kind of truth-telling the local miners want to hear.

Nor those connected to the industry, it seems. Miners like Glencore, a local parent told us, are unbelievably helpful when the local school needs a chunk of financial support for kids’ sport for instance. They just have to mention the word. No problem disguising the pork barrelling in this hood, it seems.

Holmes agrees the region is quite deeply divided over coal, but it’s a personal observation, he says, and takes his views no further. His company’s 150 staff are quite heavily involved in the mining industry in general. But his team of four sustainability staff sit squarely in the property team.

Overall, the company works in a mix of property, infrastructure and sustainability. 

A recent project the team has worked on is the Q Building, the start of a sizeable new precinct for the University of Newcastle, which was established on the periphery of the city but is starting to wend its way into the commercial heartland as part of the view that universities are a great fillip to commercial activity and probably should not be segregated away from the action.

An existing building, the first for the city’s commercial connection, called Nu space in Hunter Street, was established a few years ago.

Sean Holmes

The one Holmes has recently finished working on is on a swathe of land on nearby Honeysuckle Drive on land freed up with the removal of the heavy rail in the CBD and the opening up of access for the CBD to the stunning harbour.

It initially aimed for five star Green Star certification but news is expected soon that it will achieve six star.

The building will target new technology and innovation, housing a school of creative arts and an innovation hub. 

At just 2500 square metres, the building is small but it will have a big impact.

See separate article, Newcastle’s new university building showcases innovation in more ways than one

It will not only have 100 per cent renewable electricity but a façade that its architect Anthony Furniss of EJE architecture says is quite unique for this part of the world. It’s electrochromic glazing, supplied by US based SageGlass through George Fethers & Co. 

The glass connects to radiation sensors built into the roof that will trigger a change in colour from completely clear to near black depending on the external solar conditions.

The result will be better thermal comfort and energy efficiency.

The full gamut of the new university precinct will involve six to eight buildings to be built over the long term and anticipated to be worth around $500 million in end development value, Holmes says.

His team is also advising the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation on the preferred sustainability outcomes in the precinct.

Part of the wish list from the community is for better social and diversity outcomes through elements such as an “18-hour economy”, rooftop activation, retail and other design features that encourage permeability.

Among the challenges the city faces is the light rail that replaced the heavy rail has fallen short of expectations. Patronage is not great partly because the line is too short to be truly useful, and there are calls and plans for it to be extended.

Nevertheless, the economic vibe is growing. Iris Capital is doing much to reinvigorate the high end retail side of the commercial equation in the precinct around Hunter Street, which has been “pretty dead” for a long time, Holmes says, and people are moving back to the CBD.

“People are moving from greater Newcastle back to the city – both downsizers and also people escaping Sydney. It’s a good landing spot. There are offices and a separate economy and hopefully [soon] faster transport,” Holmes says.

Among other activities worth noting are those generated by the Port of Newcastle which recently announced it was powered by renewable energy in a bid to change its image as a dirty – and the world’s biggest – coal port. 

It recently received funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to explore a hydrogen production facility with the aim of upscaling and exporting the fuel.

The realisation that demand for coal is in terminal decline plays on people’s minds, Holmes says, especially those whose jobs rely on it. But even so “there are many who understand we’re going through a transition”.

It’s a sensitive issue and even the biggest coal companies are reluctant to talk about it, he says. 

Another option for the port is to build a container terminal with deep water access but this is fraught with political hurdles because of the state government’s promises when it sold Port Kembla and Port Botany to pay a levy if Newcastle started to compete for containers over a certain size.

The expansion of the Greater Sydney Commission to the regional cities will also be good for Newcastle, alongside the upgrade of the airport to international grade.

In other words plenty of reasons to reassure Holmes he’s made the right choice in his move north.

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