Getting Started: the Renew Newcastle experience

Renew Newcastle logo

Renew Australia's Marcus Westbury provides start-up advice based on his experience of founding Renew Newcastle in 2008.

This section was adapted from his January 2010 publication, Creating Creative Enterprise Hubs: A Guide.

Read the information online or download the guide.

Identifying appropriate empty buildings

The whole idea of a 'Renew' project is to use spaces that are temporarily empty. It's not about trying to create permanent arts centres or enduring infrastructure. 

It's about reusing and recycling temporarily empty spaces to create hubs, clusters and pockets of interesting new things and catalysts for new creative activity. 

In your community it could be one building, a cluster of buildings or a whole street of them. The best candidates are places that have been or are likely to be temporarily empty for some time. 

The key element of this approach is that it requires under-utilised spaces. Typically under-utilised spaces can be found in:

Suitable sites can be either privately or publicly owned.

To date, Renew Newcastle has worked with private property owners, but government sites are also potential candidates if governments are willing and able to make them available on appropriately flexible terms.

The biggest single factor in successfully securing a property is the ability to communicate directly with property owners or someone empowered to make a decision on their behalf.

Each project needs to involve a genuine dialogue between the owner and those who seek to use the building.

While many similar schemes have targeted real estate agents, Renew Newcastle has found that as a general rule real estate agents are often unwilling or unable to assist with this as it falls outside their normal operations and responsibilities.

While it is certainly desirable to target high profile sites or iconic buildings, it is often easier to target a group of buildings or an area, rather than putting all your energy into activating a specific one.

This offers more flexibility and options should a property owner not be interested. It also offers the chance to create small-scale examples rather than diving straight into complicated and potentially expensive sites. 

Ultimately though, choice is determined via availability of suitable sites and in some regional centres or geographic areas choices of sites may be severely limited.

Involving the community

'Renew' projects work best if they involve more than just the arts community or one part of the arts community. 

The level and ease of success will often be defined by how wide a group of people are actively supporting, representing and advocating the idea.

A good place to begin is by talking to local businesspeople, councils, artists, community groups, and political leaders to gauge the level of interest. 

It is not necessary to have all these individuals and groups actively involved, but it is important that a wide range of people know about and support the idea. While many people may not be particularly interested in the idea, those that are can provide vital contacts, networks and support. 

Unless you are targeting one particular site or building, you will not be dependent on a particular public or private sector partner to succeed. There are many potential allies and strategies that may be effective. Don't spend too much energy convincing those that aren't interested, but invest it instead in talking to and building up networks of those who are. 

Each part of a community may have a different reason to be involved in such a scheme and it is important that each understands what they can and cannot benefit from. Newcastle demonstrates that it is possible for business, the arts, and the wider community to all benefit.  

In Newcastle, the project that became Renew Newcastle had the support of everyone from the regional Chamber of Commerce, key people at the university, and people within the local media, to the body that represents inner city business groups and of course the local arts community even before the Renew Newcastle company itself was formally founded. When the company was created, some of these interested parties were invited to hold positions on the board. 

An easy mistake to make is not engaging with the whole community. 

A project like this will not work if it is just about a local council, or arts or business trying to push an agenda through. While it mustn't be trying to please all the people all the time, it must have the respect and engagement of all stakeholders and a clear reason and mechanism for them all to be involved. 

Understanding the legal issues

These projects are not to be undertaken lightly. While there is an inevitable amount of trial and error involved it is vital to dot your i's and cross your t's at the beginning. 

A property - even an empty one - is a big responsibility. No one will trust you with an empty space unless you can show you're serious about it.

Renew Newcastle involved pro bono lawyers early on to assist with planning the project, establishing the company, drawing up licence agreements and the other paperwork involved. 

Being able to refer property owners to credible solicitors when they ask legal questions also makes it much easier for owners to take the idea of lending their property seriously. 

Whoever is planning and negotiating the use of the space needs to understand the details of insurance, who would do what, and how and when to vacate the properties if a commercial tenant came along. 

Renew Newcastle's pro bono lawyers Sparke Helmore have developed great model licence agreements specifically for Renew Newcastle.

These are now available to other projects and groups courtesy of the Arts Law Centre of Australia and the NSW State Government but we would stress that these are no substitute for getting your own legal advice - this is only a place for your own lawyers to start. 

Assessing the costs

There is no simple answer for how much an initiative like this costs to start and run. The beauty of this kind of approach is that is VERY cheap for the amount of opportunities it provides and activities it generates. 

The biggest factor cost-wise is labour and professional services. Fortunately, it is also the easiest to reduce if you have committed and skilled volunteers. 

Renew Newcastle went from nothing to managing more than a dozen spaces using only volunteer labour. 

Now that it is managing more than 20 spaces and is actively dealing with many property owners, it has two part-time staff members - a role that could be undertaken by volunteers if the number of spaces involved were less. 

The key costs involved in establishing something like a Renew Newcastle project are: 

Costs such as marketing, outgoings, and expenses will largely be determined by how you choose to operate. Renew Newcastle projects each pay the outgoings on their premises and a $20 per week participation fee that goes towards the costs of the maintenance of the properties.

Structuring your initiative

Create or find a reputable structure...

No one is going to trust you with property if you can't show you are capable of managing and maintaining it, and to do so, you need to have a responsible legal entity overseeing the process. 

Renew Newcastle was established as a not-for-profit company specifically to manage temporarily empty buildings. This allowed Renew Newcastle to custom design its own structure for this purpose and it is probably the best way to go if you are planning on managing multiple spaces or setting up a city or region-wide scheme. 

The key features of the Renew Newcastle structure are that it is: 

These are all good principles to keep in mind if you are thinking of establishing a structure.


Setting up an administering body

Setting up an administering body

An 'administering body' is necessary to coordinate the activities of the creative enterprises hub, seek out property owners willing to grant licences to use their buildings, and elect projects and program participants. There are several options for setting up the administering body.

Read more about setting up an administrative body in the information sheet Suite of Legal Information Sheets and Agreements for Creative Enterprise Hubs in NSW available from the Arts Law Centre of Australia.

In other places - particularly where the community is smaller and the properties involved are few - it may not be necessary to establish a separate structure. 

For only one or two properties, a local arts council, business group, or not-for-profit organisation may be able to take on the management role. If this is the case though, it is important to ensure that the arrangements are clear and transparent and that everyone involved has a clear understanding of those arrangements.

Approaching property owners

Before approaching anyone with a property that might potentially be suitable, it is wise to be clear about what you are asking for and what you are offering. 

It pays to be flexible enough to respond to the needs, constraints and desires of property owners, but it is also best to do this from a position of being clear about what you want and are proposing. 

Renew Newcastle negotiates directly with property owners. As a rule, it finds them through networks of contacts, direct approaches, media and publicity, and inviting them to talks and events. In some cases, it works in reverse: property owners have approached Renew Newcastle.

Renew Newcastle asks property owners for the right to access their otherwise empty building on a rolling 30-day basis for a suitable project.

It is explained up front that the agreements offered ensure that there is no opportunity cost should someone else want to use the building. If the landlords want to sell or someone else wants to move in, Renew Newcastle projects will move out.

 The agreements are licence agreements (essentially direct contracts) rather than leases to ensure that they are as tax and hassle-friendly as possible to the property owner. 

Renew Newcastle generally likes to take the time to listen to the owners' long-term plans and allow them to be involved in selecting the projects from a shortlist that is proposed to them.

Planning and development issues

Perhaps the hardest part about managing temporary projects is the legal issues that are associated with any kind of development or use of property. 

Although 'Renew'-type projects are temporary, they must generally comply with the same rules, regulations and costs that would accompany a permanent development or any other kind of change of use.

This is an area where a local council can go a long way to make things either easy or difficult. 

A sympathetic council or even just the right person in planning and compliance can help you work through practical issues and find the best ways to do things. An unsympathetic approach can create cost, complexity and confusion so quickly that it can kill off a short-term initiative before it even gets started. 

Unfortunately, the rules vary from state to state, from council to council and in some cases even from street to street -depending on what the local plans allow or whether the area is under a heritage order for example. 

As a result, specific advice can be difficult to provide on a website like this; however, there are a few principles that tend to make things a little easier if they are followed. They include: 

Read more about Working with Planning Systems in NSW

Managing the risks

Risk management is a major issue with doing 'Renew' projects. The risks in the world and the laws that apply to them do not change simply because a project is temporary; however, it can help to think about how to deal with them a little differently than might normally be the case in permanent projects. 

The biggest risk management issue is safety. Safety outcomes when doing any project involving the public or where there is a danger of people getting hurt are non-negotiable; however it does help to remember in projects where budgets are tight, spaces are impermanent and time is of the essence, that some safety outcomes can be achieved in a variety of ways. 

For example, you may not need to occupy the entirety of every space you use - if there are floors or parts of a building that aren't up to scratch it can make a lot more sense to section them off than to spend the money required to fix them up. 

Spaces that are open to the public will have different rules and standards than those that are only open to people who work there so it may be possible to think about how to use spaces and not simply what needs to be done to them. 

Choosing how to allocate spaces and what you use them for is a great way of managing risks. The aim should be to find ways to use places and spaces in a safe way rather than trying to spend money and time that you may not have to use them in particular way.

The support of a local council and the advice of skilled professionals can be crucial in making these judgments, but it is best to seek out people with a 'can-do' approach rather than simply a rule book. 

Other kinds of risks can also be handled a little laterally. It does help to recognise the unique qualities of temporary projects.

Most other non-safety related risks are proportional to the scale and impact of what you are doing. The fact that projects aren't permanent and can be ended with 30 days notice means that it makes sense to embrace the idea of experimentation much more than would be the norm for permanent projects. 

In many ways, these kinds of projects are about experimenting with ideas that may not work - so expecting and managing how they might fail is part of the process.

When dealing with property owners, councils, and other stakeholders, it is also extremely important to remember that utilising spaces temporarily does not simply create new risks but it reduces existing risk. 

It is always important to remind the stakeholders involved to measure the risk of doing something against the reality of doing nothing.

In many cases the status quo includes vandalism, destruction, decay, crime, falling social cohesion (and underperforming property values) in our cities, towns and suburbs. 

Finding and selecting creative participants

'Renew'-type projects work best if there are a wide range of artists and creative people involved. It is important that an initiative about the community represents a good cross-section of the creative community and not simply a small clique and their friends. 

Reactivating a city or town works better if it gives a wide range people a reason to go there and not just a small group of people to have a place to hang out.

Renew Newcastle has experimented with and explored a range of approaches to finding the artists and creative people who have undertaken 'Renew' projects. 

The methods you use will inevitably impact upon the quality and success of the projects. Renew Newcastle has sought projects using strategies including:

The exact format of the call for submissions and the selection process for projects will depend on your needs. 

Renew Newcastle has at various times had both open calls and specific deadlines for applications depending on the availability of projects and the length of waiting lists. 

All applications are reviewed and prioritised by the management of Renew Newcastle. They are prioritised primarily depending on their suitability for spaces available based on the written applications and face-to-face discussions with a short list of project proponents. 

Final go-ahead is only given after meeting with the applicants and putting their proposals to interested property owners. 

Renew Newcastle's experience has been that projects need to be curated and carefully selected due to the sheer range of factors, interests and stakeholders involved.

Matching projects to spaces

There is no right answer to the question "Who are the right kind of people to take up these spaces?" The needs of a small city like Newcastle are very different from those of a country town, or of an empty suburban school. 

While an out-of-town site might benefit from clustering many similar things together and giving a small group of people a reason to go out of their way to get there, a dead city street will more likely benefit from a more diverse mix that will give a wide range of locals something to check out. 

Ultimately it comes down to a combination of judgment, taste and what is being proposed from the local community. 

However, there are some points beyond simple artistic criteria to consider that will apply when selecting projects: 

Matching the artists and creative initiatives to the right spaces is important part of getting the project right. 

Some properties lend themselves to certain kind of uses - a big open space with large walls makes a great gallery. A small pokey shopfront probably doesn't, but would make a great space for a local jeweller or craftsperson. 

Someone who makes their own small wares needs small spaces, while a sculptor, for example, might need a large one. 

Also think about how the public will react to different kinds of work and what the passing audience is likely to be. Putting a gallery of confrontational images next to a toy shop or a school is asking for trouble. 

As a rule, the more prominent a space, the more important it is to ensure that it is not merely managed responsibly but seen by the public to be managed responsibly.

Each project is at least partially an advertisement to potential projects, property owners and the wider community - getting it right is the best promotion you can get.

Other tips and tricks

Keep it simple

Once you start down the path of working with artists and spaces or place-making and renewal. there can be a lot of temptation to complicate and add to the project. 

At its core, these strategies work best when kept simple: matching ideas to available spaces. 

The decision to chase funding for non-core things or to move into other areas should only really be made if you are confident that the core operations can remain simple and efficient.

It's the simplicity of the scheme that allows so many new things to access it. The more you complicate the process, the criteria, extend the timelines or otherwise detract from its simplicity, the more you shrink the pool of potential projects and applicants. 

Embrace temporariness

There is always a lot of temptation and pressure to expand from doing temporary projects into creating permanent facilities, schemes or structures. The whole point of this approach is to activate the temporary and embrace the ephemeral. 

If you or elements of your community want to take on permanent ownership or build ongoing infrastructure, this may prove to be a bad way to go about it.

It is vital that long-term plans, agendas and discussions are kept separate from temporary uses: nothing would destroy credibility sooner than temporarily using a building or a space and refusing to move out of it or agitating against the owner's long-term plans. No one will lend you a property again if you do that!

Think small 

It helps to think of this kind of approach as an exercise in thinking small rather than a grand vision. 

It is best to be guided by the question of "How do we make this space/city/community work well for the needs of creative people with limited resources?" rather than trying to implement a grand vision. 

If you get the small-scale and bottom-up aspect of the scheme right, the bigger picture will take care of itself.

There are no lack of great grand schemes, but if the motivated people necessary to realise it can't be found, it is probably not going to get anywhere fast.

Be transparent

Everyone involved needs to know what they are signing up for and where they stand at all times. 

Schemes like this are largely based on trust and they rely on everyone giving a little bit so that they can gain a lot. 

There are limits to how much people can be expected to do with the resources they are being offered and people need to always understand the constraints. 

The key thing for all involved is to be transparent about the terms being offered and what is being expected - there is no need to mislead anyone or promise things you can't deliver. Give people all the information so that they can make informed decisions.