Vacant shopfronts in the Newcastle CBD should be opened up to community arts and not-for-profit groups, under control of a property trust that assists building owners with tax concessions.
This is a scheme being floated by Marcus Westbury, the Melbourne-based former Newcastle arts festival director, who considers the scheme part of “unfinished business” from his 10-year association with the city through the This Is Not Art festival he co-founded 10 years ago.
Mr Westbury, who now presents a television series Not Quite Art about contemporary arts practice for ABC television, has approached local politicians about establishing a trust to manage the sites, and provide basic maintenance for the properties.
“I think (in Newcastle) there’s been a long term (trend) of deferring the future, of just imagining that in five or 10 years or 15 years from now that we’ll redevelop that site or something will happen and that’s when we’ll fix things up,” he told ABC Newcastle.
“In between times . . . there are literally buildings that are being left to rot . . . at least a hundred empty shops (in Hunter St).”
CEO of the Hunter Business Chamber Peter Shinnick appeared broadly supportive of the scheme.
“I think that any sort of approach which offers some sort of improvement for the CBD is welcomed,” Mr Shinnick said.
“It’s a novel idea and if it works it’s great and we’d be happy to provide some weight behind the issue if that’s what Marcus wants.”
In one of his Not Quite Art episodes Mr Westbury travels to Glasgow where buildings owners can get a tax concession if a not-for-profit group moves into the building.
“Everyone who’s got a vacant building in Glasgow is actively trying to some not-for-profit group, or some community group, or some arts group, to get in there and do something with it, until they’ve got someone who can pay them some money,” he said.
Mr Westbury says a trust “will provide a healthy tax concession” as well as basic maintenance as well as short or long term tenants. And it would not involve large outlays of money.
“One of the aims of this project is to come up with a strategy that isn’t very expensive,” he says
“A trust needs to have a small staff and be able to broker relationships with people. . . being able to marshal initiatives within the local community.”
He said providing tangible solution for building owners will be the key to the success of such as scheme, rather than relying on the goodwill of property owners.
“Relying on goodwill isn’t actually a strategy,” Mr Westbury said.
“The strategy I think is to offer the owners something that actually solves a problem for them, and the fact that their buildings are falling apart and decaying, losing value and generating bad will.
“Driving down property prices doesn’t actually help them.”