Renew Newcastle's Marni Jackson

The Renew Newcastle initiative has been a great success in revitalising the CBD. But it wasn't all plain sailing. Marni Jackson, general manager and board secretary at Renew Newcastle, talks about lessons learned along the way.

Marni Jackson
Marni Jackson, general manager and board secretary at Renew Newcastle.

How long have you been involved with Renew Newcastle?

The founder of the project, Marcus Westbury, asked me to assist with an as yet unnamed scheme to utilise empty buildings in Newcastle in mid 2008. By October I was signing on to be a director of the not-for-profit company that was being set up to manage the initiative: Renew Newcastle Limited. 

Marcus had pulled together a board of unlikely collaborators - an urban planner, architects, business advocates, general community, and arts industry - after the main structure and set-up of the scheme had already been crystallised by the work he did with our legal advisor.

By December 2008 we were fine-tuning the systems and structures that were needed to bed down the operations, and rolling out the first of the projects into properties.  

What have been some of the challenges in setting up the scheme in the first instance?

The hardest bit was working through the possible models and structures to create the best opportunity for a scheme like this to exist. It needed to satisfy the interests of a wide variety of stakeholders, be easy to understand and relatively simple to implement. 

But by necessity it crosses over a number of industries that don't usually speak the same language - private property investment, real estate markets, city planning and urban renewal, creative industries development, retail marketing, community development, small business incubation. 

How were these challenges overcome? 

Marcus did a great job of crystallising the ideas for the outline of the scheme - and this "thinking" work, before the "doing" was really crucial. Of course we have learned from the "doing" and fine-tuned along the way, but it was very important to have a good base to work from. 

What have been some of the challenges that occurred once the scheme was up and running?

Managing the many, many Expressions of Interest from local artists - we were inundated and it was sometimes hard to keep everyone up to date with our progress. 

We were learning a lot as we went and sometimes changed tack without being able to keep everyone abreast of those changes. We had to learn to balance the need for information sharing, but also not getting ahead of ourselves and promising what we couldn't deliver. We think we are getting better at this now! 

We've also had to say no to a lot of ideas and stay out of local debates which are related but don't fit exactly or impact directly on what we are doing.

We have limited resources and quite a strong idea of what we can achieve within our brief, but we've really had to stay focused on this - there are many related concepts and worthy causes but we have to be realistic about what we can do and what we need to leave for another day or for some other entity to undertake. 

What things didn't work and why?

One of the things we had to adjust was how we got new project applications. In the first months we invited applications for anyone who had an idea and needed space. We were inundated with an amazing variety of ideas from local people, but of course we were only able to help implement a small number of these (about 10%). 

As we went through the process of placing those projects, we worked out what types of projects were easiest to achieve, which ones presented challenges, and how to better communicate what the overall aims of the initiative were. 

We needed to make it easy to manage for us, and easy to navigate for the artists, so that we could attract proposals that were a better fit with what we could actually achieve, and were more likely to be able to place. 

We started to then only invite applications once we had new properties to place, and asked for proposals that matched what could reasonably happen in particular spaces (ie without development approvals (DAs), alterations to the space) and would best fit the space (ie street shopfronts suited to retail or gallery - public access, rather than closed door studio space). 

How did you deal with these problems and issues?

One of the toughest things for me has been to accept that we just can't find spaces for all of the proposals at one time, and we have to say no to some.

We are asking a lot of the projects in the early stages - to show they are keen and up for the task of taking on a space to run their project, but then offering no certain timeframes, no guarantees of possible spaces, possible delays in getting approved to move into spaces, and the prospect of hard labour to get the space up and running. 

I was as sensitive to the pressures of the uncertainty as I could be and tried to keep everyone in the loop. But remembering that there were lots of decisions out of my hands, I had to be patient too! The property owners so far have been so supportive and generous, as have the artists who are part of the initiative.

How did you go about approaching landlords?

The first licence agreement with GPT Group was brokered by Marcus before I came on board. But in those early days rolling out the first projects in the first properties it was very much a working relationship - we went step by step together. 

At every stage we were checking in, getting approvals for projects, working through the building works and maintenance responsibilities - neither party had done such a thing before, so there was nervousness on both sides. But by keeping up the good communication we got good results. We didn't ever second guess what the property owners needed from us - we asked. 

Once we had the initiative underway with some examples of how it could work, we were open to anyone who knew anyone who might own a property to connect us up. Some approached us after seeing the early days of the project reported in the newspaper. 

We have had some introductions from community leaders in the Newcastle City Centre Committee and the Hunter Business Chamber. We are in talks with peak bodies such as the Property Council - to get them to advocate through their networks. 

We also produced some direct marketing materials aimed at property owners, telling them what they needed to know about how the scheme works and how it can benefit them. The local council helped us by sending these to every property owner in the CBD. Once the low-hanging fruit are occupied (ie those properties that are offered to us) we will also target properties strategically, such as those located in useful positions. 

What do projects such as Renew Newcastle need to take into account when approaching landlords? What advice can you offer on how best to approach them?

We have taken great pains to make sure that property owners understood what we were trying to achieve and the terms of the agreements. 

It's important to understand what they want to get out of the arrangement - what their history with the property is, what their longer-term intentions are for the space, what kinds of projects they are happy to see happen in the space. 

This will inform your choices for projects that will fit the space. And keep them in the loop as much as they need, without burdening them with the minutae of the projects' operations (unless they want or need them). 

What were landlords? main concerns?

  • The notice period - being able to move out a Renew Newcastle participant and move in a commercial tenant quickly if the need arises
  • Liability - both in terms of person and property: in particular that the projects were covered by public liability insurance
  • Safety compliance - that the activities to be undertaken in the space were legal and allowed in the development approval for the property, and that we achieve safety compliance for those activities

 How did you address these concerns?

The notice period, liability and insurances are dealt with in the licence agreement. 

For safety, compliance and building-related issues, we need the advice and support of professionals who are well versed in the BCA (Building Code of Australia) and local council planning regulations.

We receive pro-bono consultancy and advice from a local company who are project managers for developments (APP Corporation). They understand the issues from a BCA and council regulations point of view, but also understand the Renew Newcastle context and that we are always trying to find effective, low-intervention and low-cost solutions for any issues. 

They are really great at explaining the issues, providing advice on managing the risks, offering a range of solutions and trouble shooting to find the best. This has allowed us to provide the answers for property owners, provide safe environments for our projects and the public and make sure we are complying legally. 

Please supply details of the licence agreement and how it works.

We use a licence agreement and this is the contract between Renew Newcastle and the property owner. The license agreement sets out the important conditions for using the spaces such as liability, length of occupation, notice period, and other responsibilities. 

This is then backed up with a participation agreement between Renew Newcastle and the projects.

The participation agreement is more specific about responsibilities of the artist to the Renew Newcastle initiative and also outlines the specific details of their proposed usage of the space.

Why did you go with this model for the agreement?

We had to have a contract with the property owner to occupy their premises which wasn't a lease that would tie them in for long periods of time or trigger some of the other responsibilities for both the property owner and the projects. 

Why does it work particularly well in Newcastle?

Property owners often have a property sit empty while they are awaiting another use. For example, they have taken vacant possession and are waiting for DA approval; waiting for re-development works to start; seeking a commercial tenant to take on a lease, or even that they are undecided on what to do with the property. 

Newcastle is full of buildings where the property owners are waiting for one or other of the above - but often the timelines blow out and the property is vacant for much longer than expected.

There's more chance of dereliction, decay and vandalism, which perpetuates a cycle of vacancy. In Newcastle we are stemming this tide. 

The licence agreement - with its all important 30-day notice period - allows a property owner to grant temporary occupancy and use of a site without tying them down to long-term use. If they get a better offer, they can give the project 30 days notice and put the property to another use. 

In the meantime the activity in the property is keeping the neighbouring businesses happy (no one wants to operate their business surrounded by derelict shops, or be the only business open in an empty street) and keeping the vandals at bay. 

What is the situation with insurance/s? Exactly what does Renew Newcastle provide and what do the projects and landlords need to cover themselves? 

We wanted to remove some of the barriers to participation that many projects face, and the cost of liability insurance is one of them.

So, Renew Newcastle has public liability insurance to which each of the projects is annexed. Each project is then recommended to get insurance coverage for the other needs of their businesses - things like plate glass insurance, contents insurance, workers compensation insurance. The only compulsory insurance is workers compensation if the business has employees.

The UK's Meanwhile project covers all landlords' liabilities (except for rent which is landlords' profit), so Meanwhile covers business rates, utilities and insurance, meaning that the property doesn't cost the owner so much while a project is temporarily housed there. Does Renew Newcastle cover any of these business costs for landlords?  

The project is responsible for paying for outgoings, such as electricity, water and gas if they are connected. So far, rates and levies and other liabilities associated with landlords' investment property continue to be paid by the landlord (which they would pay if they had a tenant in there or not, and come hand in hand with their investment). 

Renew Newcastle doesn't have the resources to offer to cover these costs, as they could come into the thousands per quarter for one property. 

However, we do consider this on a case-by-case basis, as different property owners have different needs, and we may indeed find a project who might pay for such things in exchange for using the space. 

In most instances the property owner continues to pay these. We have looked into this for one property owner and the property owner asked for usage costs. They were in a strata where part of their costs are the cleaning of the common areas such as toilets and hallways, and the water usage was not itemised, but billed on a percentage between all strata owners. We asked for the project to contribute to these cleaning and water costs. We only have one arrangement that involves this. 

What improvements or fit-out to the property are projects allowed to carry out?

Any major capital works affecting the structure of the property require a DA approval, which takes time and money to get, and time and money to undertake the works. As our projects may only have a short period of time in a space, they need to maximize the opportunity - by undertaking a quick, low-cost, low-intervention fit-out.

Our arrangement is that all alternations to the space must have the consent of the property owner. Generally a basic facelift involving cosmetic changes is all that has been required in many of the spaces to make them feel new again - taking up the carpet, painting the concrete floor, putting a coat of paint on the walls, adding some shelving and so on. 

More ambitious works have included removing a false ceiling (a bad 1980s fit-out was hiding a rich dark wood fishbone structure, which added so much character to one of the shops), removing rotting cabinets or replacing termite-ridden floorboards. In all cases the property owner were happy to see the improvement. 

Have there been any issues with projects wanting to do something and not being allowed to, either by the property owner or council?

Our agreement with the property owner is that all modifications to the space are approved by the property owner first. The project tells us the improvements that they would like to make and the property owner says yes or no. 

Generally most have been approved, as they are improvements to the space. Sometimes approval is given with conditions such as painting bright fashion colours or a mural on a shop wall as long as the wall is returned to a neutral paint colour at end of the occupancy. 

One project wanted to remove the carpet to provide a smoother work surface, but the property owner preferred the carpet to stay as it was in reasonable condition and would be an asset to a commercial tenancy negotiation. 

The project decided to gaffa-tape some lino over the top of the carpet - they have the surface that they need to work on and can roll it up and take that with them when they leave the space.

We need the projects to leave the space in better condition than when they entered, and don't want to leave the property owner with any changes that make it more difficult to rent out their space commercially. 

What issues did you have, if any, with local government planning department and how were these overcome? 

Important things to know are what use approvals are currently in place on the property, and whether your proposed use is considered either Exempt or Complying development. 

If not, you will have to submit a Change of Use Development Application toyour local council, which takes time and money to process. We made it apriority to do the projects which were easiest ie those that were already permitted in the space, so that we were'nt required to undertake the DA process. For example if the property was previously used as a retail shop, we moved in a retail project. With no major works taking place, only cosmetic fit-out changes, this is considered an Exempt Development and new approvals aren't required.

One of our key tips is to just do the projects you can do simply, rather than trying to do the tricky ones and getting stuck. 

Have these issues become easier to resolve now that the scheme has been up and running and seen to be a success? 

We have so far avoided doing any difficult projects like performance spaces, which definitely require Development Approvals. However, after receiving the support and interest of local councillors and council upper management we are reasonably sure that such processes in the future will be relatively easy to manage. 

What have been some of the key success stories of Renew Newcastle?  Have any of the participants' ventures gone on to succeed long term, perhaps paying commercial rent? 

There are a few different elements of success for the projects that are important to recognise. Success comes in many forms. 

We have had one participant who was in a Renew Newcastle space for five or six months. She had to vacate the property as the property owner had a commercial tenant for the space. Having tested her idea and skills she felt capable of continuing her business, so she took up a two-year lease in a property in the same general vicinity. 

For this project the time in the subsidised space consolidated her ideas and gave her the confidence to pursue a long-term lease to continue with the shop presence.

For other projects that have been moved out of their space, the experience gave them something concrete on which to reassess their original business idea, and they are no longer pursuing the retail shop format for their enterprise. For us this is also a success, as the opportunity encouraged experimentation and real growth of ideas. 

Another group of projects were placed together sharing one property - they each have individual lockable offices but share common areas. These projects are in similar or complementary industries, but more importantly are sharing the experience of being small independent creative businesses.

These projects have benefited from real networking and exchange opportunities with each other - the extent to which this has happened was a little unexpected, but a true success in terms of the broader aims of Renew Newcastle. 

What impact has Renew Newcastle had on the local area? 

We have received lots of happy feedback from other retailers, local residents, the artists who have space, audiences for those spaces, property owners, local council, business groups, architects and urban designers, out of town visitors - a seemingly impossible group of people to get to agree in usual circumstances.

The key here has been that the project just makes sense, and it has seen some really positive turnaround in terms of the look and feel of the mall area. There has definitely been an improvement of commercial interest in the mall over the past 12 months.

Alongside other place improvement strategies such as the council re-opening the mall to traffic, improved signage and amenity in the area and a concerted effort by property owners to attract commercial tenants, the Renew Newcastle shops and galleries have created a real point of difference in the city centre retail landscape. Commercial tenants are returning to the area (in November 2009 six Renew Newcastle projects were moved out to make way for commercial tenancies). 

In addition, I'm really aware of less tangible impacts like the heightened sense of possibility - locals feeling like there is a shift happening in the city, that really good things can happen in Newcastle, and that they can be in control of making those things happen.

How is Renew Newcastle funded to cover costs of staff, insurance and so on? 

Renew Newcastle has secured cash and in-kind support from a range of sources. The project was only possible in the early days because of the volunteer labour. Marcus worked for a good 12 months, and I worked for six months, before we received cash support. 

We got volunteers to assist with the website, graphic design, administration, property clean-ups and so many other things. It was also imperative that we had legal advice - so the pro-bono legal support from Sparke Helmore Lawyers was integral to the development and success of the project. 

We have also received pro-bono support from APP Corporation (building and development advice), Ipera (wireless internet), TO Technology (office equipment) and a variety of other contractors and services. 

This early work demonstrated that the initiative didn't require a lot of capital to be effective, and wasn't about throwing money at a problem.

However, to be able to sustain the operations, we did need some cash support to pay for essentials such as insurance and staff to keep it running. 

The first support came from Arts NSW which was for organisational costs such as staffing, insurances and administration, for two years: 2009 and 2010. This was an out-of-time funding arrangement that really responded to the urgent need we had to get staff on the ground to manage the operations, which were at the time going full steam ahead.

Newcastle City Centre Committee is a committee of Newcastle City Council and is funded by the special benefits rate-payers' levies. Its aim is develop the inner city and support inner-city businesses, along the lines of a main street committee or similar. 

They came on board offering funding to help with establishing the organisation and then funded a 'bounty' per vacant property that we secured for the initiative for up to 10 properties. They were particularly interested in the impact on the streetscape, and it was a condition of the funding that it be used for repairs and maintenance and the clean up and presentation of the property facades.

Newcastle City Council Community Grants and Sponsorships program supported us with funding in 2009-2010 financial year for the ongoing operations of the initiative. We applied through the normal grants funding round. 

Now that the project is established and has demonstrated efficacy we have begun partnering with the local council to secure funding from state government sources for more ambitious extensions to the Renew Newcastle project. 

At the first public meeting we held we received one donation from a member of the local community before we were even set up enough to provide a receipt. 

Since then we have applied to be listed on the Register of Cultural Organisations and have received endorsement as a Deductible Gift Recipient, which means we can accept tax-deductible donations into our public fund. 

This means we will be able to apply for funding from charitable trusts and other philanthropic sources. These will assist us to support the projects in their operations, to provide grants for things like business start-up support, marketing and promotion, or business skills development. 

In a nutshell, what are the key things necessary for projects like RN to succeed?

Getting the understanding, involvement and commitment of a variety of stakeholders and balancing the needs of all of the parties - without weighing too heavily in either direction. 

Read about how Newcastle was renewed

Read an interview with landlord GPT Group


Renew Newcastle
3 Morgan Street
Newcastle, NSW 2300