NEWS-NCH- Launch of Hunter Innovation scorecard left to right Todd Williams CEO of RDA Brent Jenkins CEO of Newcastle Innovation Marcus Westbury Renew Newcastle Founder and Paul Jeans Uni of Newcastle Chancellor.Thursday 18th July 2013 pic by Natalie Grono NCH WEEKENDER – Simone Dacy and Hannah Rose in their photographic studio they hire through Renew Newcastle – 21st March 2014 Pic by Ryan Osland
NCH NEWS. Pic of Marni Jackson General manager Renew Newcastle who will be celebrating their 5yr Anniversary with a Renew Rewind photographic exhibition at the Emporium celebrating five years work bringing spaces to life.25th MARCH 2014. Picture by SIMONE DE PEAK.
IN five short years, Renew Newcastle has helped turn the city’s CBD from a wasteland into a thriving hub.
This weekend Renew celebrates the anniversary of its launch in January 2009, when 12 projects moved into the Hunter Street Mall and began setting up shop.
It was the beginning of a change that would play a part in transforming not only the face but also the soul of the city.
It also marks an important date for Renew’s general manager, Marni Jackson, who stepped into the role in April of that year and has been the driving force ever since.
She admits she never expected Renew to last this long or become this big.
“Maybe it was the case that we really didn’t realise the full extent of what we were getting ourselves into,” she says, laughing.
The operative term, when talking about Newcastle’s CBD prior to 2008, is “dead”, both commercially and culturally. Shuttered shops dominated the mall, and at night jumpy dudes with sallow skin huddled in Civic Park drinking from cartons in the shadows.
The fear of assault, particularly for women, was real and present, and on the rare occasions you were in that area after night fell, you were only passing through.
“It was definitely a no-go zone, the city. You never walked through Civic Park and you never walked through the mall,” Jackson says, thinking back.
“It was just known that it wasn’t going to be safe, that there probably would be a fight. There would be no one around except other people moving from place to place, but definitely Civic Park and the mall you just didn’t go [there], you seriously didn’t want to walk there by yourself and your friends wouldn’t let you.
“I think when you’re living here you don’t realise how bad things are.”
The problems were bad enough that Newcastle started attracting national attention for our now-famous problems with booze.
A moustachioed Tony Brown got blown up on the ABC’s 7.30 Report telling the country we had an “epidemic of binge drinking”, and they overlaid his comments with pictures of girls in short dresses stumbling outside of Finnegan’s and young kids swigging from goon sacks.
Into this stepped Renew founder Marcus Westbury, a Newcastle kid who had spent enough time in metropolitan Melbourne to start having dreams above his station.
A few months after the then-state government introduced new legislation that made it possible to open smaller bars and cultural venues, Westbury came back to Newcastle looking to ignite something in the heart of the city.
“So I came home and went up and down Hunter Street and looked at all the vacant properties and it just blew me away, it was sort of the first time it hit me how bad it had really gotten,” he says.
How bad has been well-documented, but essentially the only businesses rocking it in Newcastle in 2008 were those directly associated with the security shutter industry, and even they were reaching market saturation.
In one outing that year Westbury counted about 150 empty or vacant spaces on street level alone, 20 of them in the mall.
With all that empty space you might think the town’s commercial real estate agents would have been falling over themselves to get to Westbury, buying him steak dinners and box seats.
“I seriously got no calls, and I contacted a lot of commercial agencies,” he says.
“So on one level you had all these empty spaces and on the other it seemed incredibly impractical for people like me to access it. I talked to a lot of people with similar experiences, and that became the very early preoccupation of what would I guess become Renew.
“It was about plugging as much as possible the gaps between the imaginations of the people I knew who wanted to do things, and the system that was in place.”
And that was how it began.
A public forum to flesh out the idea had people queueing out the door, and once the business community, led by GPT, understood the plan was to not only fill empty shops, but also to have enough business to make it viable for commercial outlets to move back, they got onside pretty quickly.
In short, property owners with no tenants enter into a 30-day rolling licence agreement with Renew, which acts as a brokerage to find projects for the spaces.
The shops and galleries pay a weekly participation fee of $20 to Renew, and in some circumstances paid additional negotiated fees directly to property owners.
Hunter Business Chamber chief executive Kristen Keegan was at the Property Council at the time, and remembers thinking of it as a “fantastic opportunity”.
“I think it really did need a whole lot of stakeholders, including property owners like GPT, to get on board with such a new innovative solution,” she says.
“It wouldn’t have been as successful without that support [but] I think the model they put in place with a 30-day rolling licence rather gave owners a lot more confidence.”
Five years later and the numbers pretty well speak for themselves – 59 vacant properties have been brought back to life in the period, supporting 138 arts, creative and community projects.
Tourism is booming, and some surveys have found the mall is now the second-most visited attraction in the city.
But, to paraphrase Dennis Denuto, it’s not just the numbers, but also the vibe of the thing.
Photographers Hannah Rose and Simone Darcy, who share a studio off the mall through Renew, say the program has helped foster a new sense of cultural community in the city.
“There has been a huge change out there,” Darcy says.
“I think it was a matter of ‘it was time’, but Renew has brought a particular section of the community into the mall and commercial businesses have latched onto that, like Cream for example, that maybe wouldn’t have done so well if that scene wasn’t building.
“Renew has sort of given everyone a chance to come and have these spaces so instead of having business meetings at home everyone goes into the mall and has coffee or lunch, and that’s sort of reintroduced an energy,” Rose adds.
“And I think that’s why people come here, because there is no Gloria Jeans and there is no Bras n Things.”
Jackson denies Renew has driven a particular cultural aesthetic in Newcastle, pointing out that the organisation has supported everything from sound art studios to hat makers and children’s clothing stores since its inception, but says the program has given a community of local industry a chance to be visible.
“I don’t think there’s a flavour we’ve put in, other than this ingenuity or innovation or idea that you can do stuff,” she says.
“[But] I think it’s really important for [a] community of makers and creatives to be more visible to each other and what I think is people feel like there is opportunities for them here.”
With five years under the belt, and the recent news that GPT and UrbanGrowth NSW are again talking about plans for development of the city, the question of what’s next for Renew looms large.
“We’ll work wherever there’s vacant property that can be activated to add value to the city while it’s in a transition stage,” Jackson says.
“There may be big plans on the table [but] it’s not going to happen overnight, there’s going to be lots of vacant sites and lots of upheaval.
“There’s kind of a need for that Renew activity while that happens because we need to maintain the momentum that has already built up on the ground.”
“Regardless of the big plans we’ve already started with the city that we want to see.”