Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Amongst other things, I’m the Treasurer of Renew Armidale and the Armidale Tree Group – and I’m the Practice Manager at Legal Minds. I’m slowly winding my paid work commitments down and will retire within the next 6 months or so.
What is some of your work history? What were some of the highlights?
I studied at UNE, did a Science Degree and 3 Graduate Diplomas. I worked in the Botany Dept for a while and then studied computer science (which was the best thing I ever did). I worked at UNE Union and headed the project to fitout the Belgrave Cinema. I was also the UNE Union’s first licensee of Tattersalls Hotel. They were really exciting times and the experience of the businesses growing to more than $7 million turnover quite quickly was pretty amazing.
What does RENEW Armidale do?
In terms of the mechanics, Renew Armidale aims to place creative entrepreneurs and community groups into otherwise empty buildings at very low cost, but it is really designed to ensure the Mall returns to being the cultural heart and community hub for the city. If you walk along the Mall at the moment you’ll see examples of that, and I’m happy to say some of those ventures have gone on to greater things (and are legitimate businesses, paying rent).
What does the Treasurer for RENEW Armidale do?
Well, apart from the obvious – the money side of the business – I’ve been doing a lot of work with property owners with vacant spaces and matching them with people who will help bring vibrancy through creative practice back into the space. We want to see people here, meeting and having conversations and building our sense of community. There are some great examples if you think about Europe and the roles city squares play in their community life (and amazing history) and I’m part of driving that philosophy.
How did you end up coming to Renew?
A couple of years ago I mourned the loss of what the mall used to be and wanted to do something about it.
I’d read Creating Cities by Marcus Westbury who started Renew Newcastle and recognised it as a solution. I knocked on Aileen Macdonald’s door (Renew Armidale President). I’d heard she had started Renew Armidale I told her I wanted to be involved whether she liked it or not, and I’ve been here ever since.
What excites you most about your role?
I came through the university in the 70s, when the Armidale Mall was in its heyday, and I learnt to love this place. It was buzzing all year round and full of people, young people mostly.
Renew Armidale, which is based on the highly successful Renew Newcastle program, is all about bringing back the mall as the cultural heartland of the city and I get great joy out of the thought that we might be able to bring that atmosphere back and that the businesses which coexist will will reap the benefit.
I think that’s important; we’re really interested in the cultural and community component of this project as a priority, but in doing so we will help the adjacent businesses become more sustainable over the long term. If we get the community aspect right, the economic side will follow.
What have been some challenges you have already faced (or expect to face)?
I think getting the model across has been a challenge and we’re not quite there yet. If we think of the Mall in purely commercial terms, that the economics come first, then we’re not going to succeed. We need to make sure we build the community engagement in the space first and foremost and then the economic benefit will flow on from there.
Our work is to fill all the vacant spaces with activity that doesn’t compete with existing businesses. It’s difficult to create community when the place looks depressing, so once we’ve got the empty spaces filled up (and we’re getting close) we can then work on getting things happening, making it more lively, and people will start to return.
There’s an argument progress can be made by building something that attracts tourists. But in so doing you can lose the locals. However, if you build something that makes this a great place to live, you’ll get the tourists and you’ve got the people as well, so it’s win-win.
How will you overcome the challenges?
We need to get the philosophy across that underpins the success of the Renew model, I have a firm belief that if you neglect your community, you reduce your own quality of life.
We’re also in the process of completing another grant application which, if successful, will allow us to appoint someone to contribute to the Renew Program as a project office. That will certainly build additional momentum.
What inspires you?
My attitude is that by doing something for others, you are getting far more than you’re putting in, and that logic makes my choices easy..
Where do you see your role in 12 months?
I’m going to be retired and off writing my book (which I’ve wanted to do for years and years) but I’ve got some major retirement projects to complete first, not the least of which is with the Armidale Tree Group, who are really coming of age and will continue to see fantastic growth over the next 5 or so years.