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The Can Do Guy

12 December 2009 | Posted in: Media

It may well be the miracle on Hunter Street.

A minor one, but still a miracle.

Newcastle’s main drag has a pulse. The business strip once declared dead is not as yet displaying a full set of vital signs, but there is a flicker of life and with that a sense of hope and renewal.

The unlikely hero of this possible resurrection is neither politician nor business leader but rather a self-confessed nerd with a knack for pulling people around to his point of view.

A year has gone by since landlords handed Marcus Westbury the keys to some of the city’s vacant properties, just before Christmas, and he set about finding tenants for these disused spaces.

Entrusting their buildings to an arts activist who had been kicked out of Newcastle University in the mid-1990s certainly seemed a leap of faith at the time. But, by then, Westbury had racked up an impressive record for creating multimedia events, producing TV shows (ABC TV’s Not Quite Art), putting Newcastle on the creative map via his TINA (This is Not Art) festival, plus writing and reporting for various media. Along the way he displayed an uncanny facility for not just infusing an eclectic bunch of web designers, photographers, digital creatives and other talented people with his ideas, but enlisting them to power his projects.

In 2008, the idea of turning over derelict properties to artists, cultural projects and community groups was just a theory.

“I was pretty convinced it would work,” he tells Weekender.

“Yet, even if it didn’t, it didn’t really matter because we had nothing to lose.”

His pitch to property owners, estate agents, lawyers, Newcastle City Council and anyone else with a stake in the game was as simple as it was compelling: “Renew Newcastle is a win-win for property owners. We clean up their properties and make them active and presentable. They save on maintenance, on insurance, and our projects pick up all the outgoings. Of course the benefits go beyond the bottom line. It’s also fantastic to be involved in nurturing creative enterprises and new and interesting activities in the city.”

Westbury, 35, had been formulating the idea for some time but the final pieces fell into place when he visited Glasgow on a Not Quite Art shoot to explore the concept of property owners copping a tax break in exchange for making empty commercial premises available to struggling artists.

The puzzle of what to do with the economic decay encountered by post-industrial cities is not confined to Glasgow or Newcastle. Urban planners worldwide have been grappling with the issue with varying degrees of success.

But Westbury believed Hunter Street’s woes were something beyond the post-industrial problem.

“The analysis is not so much post-industrial. It’s more than that. Newcastle is a mega-version of what’s happened in country towns: Somebody has built a supermarket and, as a result, main street has died. Newcastle has that syndrome on a mega scale.

“I got hold of an old tram route map which showed that trams use to funnel everyone up and down Hunter Street and you could window shop as you went. But the shopping centres went west and thereby intercepted people coming in from the suburbs so that they no longer made it to Hunter Street.”

In the year since its launch, Westbury’s Renew Newcastle revolution has not only sprouted shoots but attracted worldwide attention as a possible model for urban renewal in other cityscapes where rot has taken hold.

New York-based Time magazine economics editor Justin Fox speculated how the Newcastle model applies to his own neighbourhood after spotting an online copy of a Westbury speech on the subject. The discussion was then pursued by Felix Salmon at Reuters, followed up by Megan McCardle at The Atlantic, and wound its way through the BBC website before landing back closer to home via a segment on ABC TV’s Stateline program. With the word out there, boffins with an interest in the subject are starting to beat a path to Newcastle to witness this minor miracle up close. Early next year, a team from the University of Tokyo’s architecture faculty will arrive to make a first-hand study of the renewal project.

On Friday December 4, what might roughly pass as Renew Newcastle’s first anniversary coincided with the opening of Red Lantern night market in the mall. Old timers were blinking in disbelief as the city’s old retail heart came alive with the clamour of people, the music of street performers and the clink of money. The recent decision to return vehicle traffic to the mall contributed to the activity.

Westbury missed it. He was in Japan honeymooning with Narinda Reeders. They first met in Melbourne where he had moved more than a year ago. She became not just his fiancee but a fellow traveller in his ventures. Her photo credits feature on the Renew Newcastle website. For Westbury, his business is his pleasure his honeymoon included a day spent with the Tokyo University architecture team discussing Newcastle.

The Japanese learned that since creating 40 local galleries, studios, design stores, craft outlets, creative enterprises and a tea house in nearly 30 empty spaces in the areas adjacent to the Hunter Street Mall, the Westbury team has no intention of backing off. As the ideas man tells Weekender, “We’re moving further afield.”

To that end, they’ve written to 600 CBD property owners in the ongoing quest for new opportunities to reconfigure the city.

The overture is not going unheeded. He has already identified a collection of properties in the most down-at-heel part of town the West End and his volunteers are in the process of matching them to prospective tenants.

“The first one down there is a music store near the corner of Hunter and Union streets.”

Vox Cyclops is an independent record store specialising in Australian and international underground music, as well as a gallery showcasing experimental works by independent artists. As Westbury reports, it’s already up and running.

“On that score, property owners are willing to meet us halfway and help us. We have no leverage whatsoever beyond that of property owners seeing that it’s a good idea to activate these spaces.”

So, how did this come to pass? How did a self-described geek with a head full of ideas and enough energy to light up main street find a way where conventional means had failed?

The genius of the Westbury play is that he has hit on a strategy that bypasses the swamp of local politics, lack of government funding and other issues contributing to Newcastle’s inertia. For years now the citizens of NSW’s second-largest city had grown increasingly desperate at the ongoing decline.

At either end of the debate about how to rescue the city stood the business sector and the political Left. Each was holding a jumper lead. Had they co-operated they might have been able to fire up the city’s dying heart, but that was never going to happen.

Rather than buy into that argument, Westbury simply charted a course between the two. His prime vehicle has been the digital revolution. Via his own website and others like www.renewnewcastle.org, Westbury has conducted a dialogue that has bypassed all conventional debate and the usual commentators. In so doing he has

motivated creative types among the digital generation to come out of their studios, garden sheds and garrets to hang out their shingles on main street.

“I took a strategic decision to stay out of the polarising debate. Instead, I decided to focus on what we could achieve,” he explains.

Insiders on the project have been impressed by Westbury’s flair for recruiting highly specialised help. Last month lawyer Rod Smith from the Newcastle firm of Sparke Helmore was awarded the City of Newcastle Service Award for his pro bono work on behalf of Renew Newcastle. With colleagues Alex McInnes and Danielle Larkin, Smith managed all of the corporate compliance, tax office endorsements and lease arrangements.

Newcastle Greens councillor Michael Osborne has been been struck by Westbury’s ability to pull people to the cause.

“I am impressed by what he’s achieved in bringing the community groups and the business sector together. He’s done that very well. It’s a model that works.

Osborne, who is on the Renew Newcastle email list, has been keeping tabs on progress. “I see there were about 70 community groups applying for a limited number of sites . We know that there are plenty of vacant spaces in the city. If we could free them up, we could move this along.”

Westbury and Osborne share the view that council could play a stronger role in creating incentives for shop owners to hand over their properties.

“We could look at rate rebates for those owners who come to the party,” the councillor suggests. “And we could offset that by charging higher rates for those landlords who don’t participate.”

Property owner Jeff McCloy doesn’t often find himself in concord with Greens politicians but he too is an admirer of Westbury’s initiative.

“There are plenty of opinions out there among those who won’t get off their backsides and do something. But people like Marcus, who have a go, definitely have my support. He has made a difference.”

The $640 million question hanging over Newcastle is will the State Government adopt the recommendations of a Hunter Development Corporation report, cut the rail line at Wickham and clear the way for the GPT property group to redevelop the CBD.

Independent councillor Aaron Buman doesn’t believe the Westbury model is the long-term answer to the city’s woes but concedes it is valuable in the near-term

“I believe it is a great gap-filler until something like the GPT project gets going,” he says.

For his part, Westbury is not anti-development, he simply has a different take on what sort of catalyst is required to turn things around.

“In Newcastle we’ve had big debates about development but development doesn’t necessarily generate activity. If you go down to Honeysuckle and walk a block back from the waterfront you’ll find a whole bunch of new buildings but very little activity.

“You have to create reasons for people to come to an area. That’s what is currently working in the mall it’s active with people again.”

“Newcastle is a mega version of what’s happened in country towns: Somebody built a supermarket and, as a result, main street has died.”

“I took a strategic decision to stay out of the polarising debate. Instead, I decided to focus on what we could achieve.”

By NEIL JAMESON

Originally published December 12th 2009 in The Newcastle Herald.