The turnout to Marcus Westbury’s talk on community revitalization in March was huge. DECA co-chair, Anita Schretlen was there and sent this report…
More than 100 people showed up, including all four city councillors within the DECA boundaries, MPP Michael Prue, and interested folks from as far as Oakwood, Dufferin Grove and Etobicoke. There is clearly a lot of interest in the issue of empty storefronts and the revitalization of our communities.
The talk focused around Marcus’ experience of taking his Australian hometown of Newcastle from a complete ghost town to a busy, vibrant community that was recently named one of Lonely Planet’s “top 10 must-see destinations in the world.” An impressive achievement, needless to say, accomplished in a matter of a couple of years.
How did he do it? Essentially, Marcus convinced landlords to lend out their empty buildings on a rolling 30-day basis and then filled them, rent-free, with people who could use these empty spaces as an opportunity for their various ventures. Examples included a photography gallery, a jeweller’s shop, a fashion design collaborative, a co-working facility, a visual arts gallery, etc. Not all of these ventures were viable businesses in their own right, but they were all high quality enterprises that brought some value to the community.
Certainly, there are a lot of nuts and bolts practicalities behind this concept. Marcus’ group “Renew Newcastle” took care of it all. This non-profit company acted as an intermediary broker, taking out an umbrella insurance policy, removing any risks the building owners may have of bills not being paid or tenants not leaving when needed, and recruiting suitable ventures. In Marcus’ words, they created a “permanent structure for temporary projects”.
To date, Renew Newcastle has supported over 70 different projects. Some of them have turned into huge successes and now pay their own way, some have packed up and made room for the next person, and some simply give back to the community. The priority has never been on the achievements of individual businesses, but rather the overall result of a vibrant, lively neighbourhood.
The effect of such an approach is multi-pronged. By cleaning up and filling abandoned buildings, the area becomes more attractive, to both foot traffic and to other businesses. By offering the use of a storefront to a fledgling enterprise, a big boost is given to someone who may not otherwise have the means to get their idea off the ground. By doing this en masse, a distinctive destination is created, housing many interesting and unique projects.
This was an engaging, informative and inspirational discussion, to say the least. Thanks need to go to Catherine Porter who spearheaded evening and to the many volunteers at both DECA and GECO (Gerrard East Community Association), who worked jointly to put the event on. Both groups will be following up on the discussions and ideas that came out of this meeting in the coming weeks. The real exciting part will be to see where all this takes us next.