A few weeks ago, I mentioned that our own Catherine Porter is looking into empty storefronts on our main street and others around the city through her column in the Toronto Star. Last week was the second in the series about a cool initiative in Australia.
Renew Newcastle Shows How To Create A People Magnet
By Catherine Porter
I need some Newcastle in my neighbourhood.
Newcastle is an Australian steel town an hour and a half north of Sydney. Last year, Lonely Planet named it one of the Top 10 cities to visit in the world, along with New York and Delhi, citing its great cafes, artist culture and surf.
What makes that amazing is that three years ago Newcastle was a ghost town. Or at least its downtown was, with 150 boarded-up buildings dotting its two main drags. You went there to get mugged.
Was it a new urban plan, an aggressive business improvement association? Or today’s version of a gold rush — four Starbucks?
Nope. It was Marcus Westbury, a festival director with a deep love for his hometown and a really good idea.
His idea: borrow the empty storefronts from their owners and fill them with artists, designers, fledgling food cooperatives. By borrow, he meant occupy them for free. Clearly artists and creators would love a crack at turning their dreams into a business. What about the property owners?
“They weren’t that hard to convince,” Westbury told me over Skype from Australia. “They’ve seen an enormous amount of benefit. We now have a national program, and property owners are paying us to take over their spaces.”
Westbury started a non-profit called Renew Newcastle. He took out some liability insurance. Then he approached one company that owned many of the derelict buildings.
His offer: I’ll find you creative tenants, they’ll fix up your space with new paint and clean windows on a rolling 30-day basis until you find a full-paying tenant, which you’re more likely to find.
Hipsters always follow the artists.
What started with a handful of Renew Newcastle tenants has grown to more than 70. A half dozen, including the food co-op, have grown into full-fledged businesses, paying market rent for their spaces. All but one have had to move off the main pedestrian mall to make way for those cool cafes and galleries.
When the first of Westbury’s tenants moved in there three years ago, they were robbed at night. Recently Westbury watched in amazement as backpackers worked on their laptops outside late at night.
“It’s gone from a no-go zone to a place were people feel safe,” says Westbury, 38.
Field of Dreams got it wrong. Building something isn’t enough. You have to fill it with people; then “they” will come.
Life is magnetic.
I love the story of Renew Newcastle because of its agency. I live in a desolate stretch of the Danforth where empty and dusty storefronts outnumber vibrant businesses. Each “For Rent” sign inspires hope, then resignation and finally despair, when another sure-to-fail dollar store moves in.
Many store owners seem as resigned as me: they’ve left their storefronts shuttered for years, not bothering to put out a sign.
Rather that waiting for the government or a Starbucks to turn things around, my neighbours and I have taken action too. Around the same time that Renew Newcastle started up, we began renovating local businesses — painting their walls, decluttering their window displays, putting up new signs.
Our motto became: “If one smashed window brings the whole neighbourhood down, what will one smashing window do?”
We are on store No. 6, and we’ve seen some results. A handful of new businesses and bakeries have moved in. Our problem? There are so many empty stores, we are running out of candidates.
Many are paid to stay empty.
Since 2002, the Ontario government has mandated cities to give commercial property owners a 30 per cent break on their taxes for space that has been vacant for 90 days or more. In my area, that adds up to about $3,000 per empty shop.
The program was brought in to ease the bite of recession on large property owners. But that gift should come with a string attached: a tax break for your space — until you can rent it out and no longer need the tax break.
We have the agreements, and the city management, in place. Just add a line and some new job descriptions.
Australian governments — both federal and local — have jumped on board. They now fund Renew Newcastle to do what the market couldn’t. Sydney is the most recent recruit, with a similar program starting on its Oxford St. this month.
Good ideas are meant to be borrowed. Toronto should be next.