Kim Spinks from Arts NSW and Lismore city centre manager Stephen Nelson on stage at the Star Court Theatre last week while Marcus Westbury explains the benefits of the Renew Newcastle project.
Kim Spinks from Arts NSW and Lismore city centre manager Stephen Nelson on stage at the Star Court Theatre last week while Marcus Westbury explains the benefits of the Renew Newcastle project.

Colourful solution for CBD

About 130 people turned up to the Star Court Theatre last Wednesday to listen to Marcus Westbury talk about the success of the Renew Newcastle project and how it might be replicated in Lismore as “Art in the Heart”.

Renew Newcastle has revitalised the Hunter Street Mall, which had up to 200 vacant shopfronts, by encouraging artists, cultural producers and community groups into the shops to bring life back to the CBD. The result has been a creative hub that is now brimming with people and bringing commercial tenants back into the area.

Marcus showed the Lismore audience a before and after photo of the mall and said he had been accused of digitally manipulating the crowds of people into the second shot.

“That’s the ultimate compliment for me. To have people think we are faking it,” he said.

Lismore city centre manager Stephen Nelson, who organised the forum, said about 85% of the people in attendance were either artists or representing arts organisations.

“They were all very excited,” he said. “But what came out of the day is that we are a very different animal to Newcastle. The reason for that is that Newcastle was suffering a severe economic depression with as many as 200 vacant shops in one section of the CBD. Here in Lismore, the number of vacant properties tends not to exceed 20 to 30 at any given time, or about 10% of commercial spaces in the CBD.”

Mr Nelson said there were only a small number of property owners in attendance, but Jim Price was there representing the Lismore Chamber of Commerce and some property owners.

“A number of our board members saw the ABC TV program on the Newcastle experience and wanted to find out more about it. In principle, the Chamber supports the concept and is looking forward to seeing more detail as it is rolled out and developed for Lismore... If we could replicate the Newcastle experience here with more foot traffic in town, everyone would benefit,” he said.

Anna Mackney and Kurt Hamilton-Foster were amongst the many artists in the audience keen to learn more.

They make individual sculptures out of wire, fabric, recycled paper and various trims that are a hybrid of fairies and insect creatures.

They have been able to turn their art into a business that pays them a wage and were operating out of a shop in the Strand Arcade before it got burnt out several weeks ago.

“We’d like to be part of it, we’d definitely put our hat in ring and go for it if that’s what Lismore City Council wants. We’d like to be visible in the main CBD, rather than in the arcades, so we stick right out in front of people’s faces,” Anna said.

She said if they were able to get a space where they were not paying commercial rent, they could look at employing someone to look after the shop while they continued to work making the sculptures.

But she said she found the message from the forum to be “wonderfully idealistic” and thought there could be a backlash if people making clothes and jewellery were given access to the vacant shops and set up in competition to existing businesses.

One of the other guests at the forum was Kim Spinks from Arts NSW, who is responsible for the new Creative Enterprise Hubs program.

Stephen Nelson said if they were able to find “a modest number of property owners to give it a go”, Lismore could be the first area in NSW to get funding to employ a project manager “to take it from concept to reality.”

He said they would also need “a very focused, high-powered board to govern the project”.

“The sooner we let them (Arts NSW) know we have found property owners to offer their shops, the sooner we will hear back and then we can look at other sources of funding... Lismore Council doesn’t have specific funds, but will help with the legal and insurance side of things,” he said. “If Art in the Heart succeeds, it is only one piece of the mosaic to revitalising the city centre... From my point of view it will become a very important part of the overall process to renew Lismore’s city centre.”


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