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Reviving empty streets

You may have witnessed the main streets in your city or town empty of life, as ‘For Lease’ signs replace merchandise in shop fronts, and silence swallows the bustle of once vibrant bars and cafes. 

The decline of main streets has been a problem in towns and cities across Australia. While online shopping seems an obvious culprit, it’s not solely to blame (making uponly 10% of total retail spend in Australia at the end of 2018). Increasing rents, reduced spending, economic downturns and big shopping centres have also played a part.

The decline not only costs small businesses — and the families who run them — but the confidence and pride of communities. As well as warding off potential businesses and developers, who – understandably –  aren’t willing to invest in a location seemingly in decay. 

So can these town centres be revived?

That’s what co-host Jan Fran and Marc Fennell are seeking to find out in episode 15 of The Few Who Do. They speak to two people who have tackled the challenge in different ways — and places.  You’ll meet the Founder of Renew Newcastle, Marcus Westbury, who founded an initiative to re-activate the city’s empty spaces. And you’ll hear from Loretta Bolotin, co-founder of Free to Feed,which has opened doors for refugees and asylum seekers to diversify business in areas of Melbourne.

Marcus Westburygrew up in Newcastle as the city entered a downturn in the 80s.   Workers lost jobs at the local steelworks and an earthquake devastated the town, killing 13 people and demolishing large parts of the city. 

“[It] really broke the back of the city centre. It stopped people going in there to shop,” Marcus tells The Few Who Do, in episode 15. “There was high unemployment, a lot of the industries were closing and… what had once been the centre of town for retail moved out to suburban shopping centres.”

Marcus left Newcastle after university to work in Melbourne. But in 2007 he returned with a plan to open a bar on the city’s main street. As he scouted locations with a notebook and phone camera in hand, he discovered the city’s prospects hadn’t improved. He counted 150 empty buildings in Newcastle’s two main streets. “I just realised this city was just in a much worse state than I'd remembered it,” he says. 

Marcus started having some serious conversations about the problem with everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to property owners, artists and stakeholders in the community. And –  as you’ll hear in the podcast –  Marcus came up with an idea much bigger than a bar: what if developers let businesses and creatives use the empty spaces rent free? 

The venture was called Renew Newcastle and it began just as the Global Financial Crisis hit — which worked in Marcus’ favour: “[Property developers] released say half a dozen properties of theirs to us, a few shops and a couple of offices. It was a bit of a ‘we'll try and see what happens’,” says Marcus.   

So what happened from there? 

In episode 15 of the podcast, hear how Renew Newcastle not only breathed new life into an empty city, but brought a community together and gave new artists and businesses a much-needed step up into the bricks and mortar space. “There's a lot of people out there who have an idea [but] they're not in a position to go and borrow a huge amount of money and sign a three-year lease,” Marcus says.

A thousand kilometres away in Melbourne, Loretta Bolotin also lent a helping hand to entrepreneurs among Australia’s newest residents. 

Loretta learned from a young age the power food has in bringing people together. She grew up in Thomastown, a suburb in Melbourne’s north filled with post-war European migrants. “Everyone came together with their families in the evening over the dinner table and that was a part of my upbringing but also my community,” she tells The Few Who Do. “It's the conversations that come through food that tell really great stories and help us to connect,” says Loretta.  

In 2015, she co-foundedFree to Feed with her partner Daniel. The organisation employed asylum seekers and refugees to teach Melbournites how to cook traditional food, in cafes that opened their doors free of charge after hours. At one point, Loretta tells the podcast up to 30 cafes were hosting Free to Feed cooking classes around town“I always felt cheeky to be able to be in a cafe after dark… creating this magic, and beautiful flavours and aromas… when the cafe would normally be completely dormant and closed,” Loretta says. 

And the concept only grew from there, with the success of the cooking classes Free to Feed was able to expand. In episode 15, hear how Loretta and Daniel were able to find their own space in Northcote and launched a new program that helps refugees establish their own careers and businesses. Among them was entrepreneur Hamed Allahyar, who shares his journey from fleeing Iran and seeking asylum in Australia in 2012, to becoming co-owner of a cafe. 

“I think that refugees, and people seeking asylum, who are looking to start bricks and mortar cafes or businesses often tend to do so in their local community,” says Loretta. “So they activate and create a cafe culture or a restaurant scene in new areas.”

To hear more, listen to episode 15 of The Few Who Do, co-hosted by Marc Fennell and Jan Fran.