Bathers' Way: One step at a time

NEWCASTLE’S beaches are wonderful things.

White sand, consistent waves, kilometres of rocks for climbing and exploring and crystal clear water (for those old enough to remember the smell of the city beaches before the deep ocean outfall of Burwood Beach).

But beach infrastructure? Well, that’s been another story altogether.

For years on end, little seemed to change on the Newcastle coastal strip, with the crumbling seagull home that was the original Surf House standing (only just) as an image of our seaside inertia.

The new, modern building that has arisen in its place has become one of the go-to destinations for locals and visitors alike.

Now, after five years of planning,  Newcastle City Council has the bit between its teeth and is now working feverishly – or as feverishly as a council can, anyway – on its Bathers’ Way project.

As part of a coastal improvement program costing $36million over 10 years, Bathers Way will provide a shared-use pathway from Merewether Baths to Nobbys Beach.

When the plans were adopted in August, the council estimated the  the path would cost $15million but a short section being worked on at Merewether will cost $3million. Council officers were reluctant this week to put a firm figure on the total cost.

 ‘‘It’s impossible to accurately predict the cost until we get the full detailed design,’’ senior council strategist Jill Gaynor said. 

By the Herald’s calculation, a $15million total would work out at about $2500 a metre.

In general terms, the plan is to work from the south to the north.

There will be exceptions – a need to stabilise the cliff at Bar Beach is one example – but essentially the council and its contract partners will work their way north from starting now at Merewether, and heading toward Nobbys.

Some of the cost will be borne by a 5per cent rate rise or ‘‘special rate variation’’, and the council will also seek federal and state government. 

Money raised from surf club kiosk rents will also be set aside for coastal works.

In recent weeks, the area around Merewether surf club has been something of a war zone, with cyclone fencing and street closures making weekends, especially, a difficulty for the public.

The disruption has alienated some in the immediate area, and the Herald has heard from various Merewether locals  who are unhappy with the changes.

Some of the distrust surrounds changes in traffic planning and parking. Roads that had been  two-way,  at the Merewether and Nobbys ends of the stretch, are being cut back to one direction to make way for the widened path.

Obviously, it is too early to tell how successful or otherwise the changes will be but the council has hired experts on the road changes. The council says the changes will be beneficial.

Another angle of concern arises from the decision to put the various beach-front kiosks to tender, and the way those tenders were handled.

Council officers made recommendations then councillors awarded the tenders  in a confidential session in the last weeks of the previous council. 

In the Herald on August 31, council general manager Phil Pearce said: ‘‘The current operators of Merewether and Bar Beach kiosks have secured the lease for Bar and Nobbys beach; the current lessee at Newcastle Ocean Baths will also operate from Newcastle beach. Finally, an existing CBD business owner will operate at Merewether. All revenue raised will be spent on coastal projects.’’

Behind that innocuous announcement lies a lot of disquiet.

Long-standing family-run businesses were ousted from Nobbys and Newcastle Beach. 

Mark Prince, who brought coffee to Merewether with his Swells Cafe, lost that tender to another enterprising businessman, Peter James, with his expanding Juicy Beans brand.

Prince said he was not in a position to complain, having kept Bar Beach and added Nobbys, but he was unhappy that the council tender process did not recognise any goodwill for the business he had built at Merewether.

He said the same went for the family-owned businesses that he and Maitland-based Hudson Caterers had ousted from Nobbys and Newcastle beaches respectively.

Hudson Caterers manager Julianna Luxton said the council had made it clear they wanted the kiosks run by professional businesses, and the era of the ‘‘mum and dad’’ fish and chip shop was over.

Council papers say the kiosks had previously been run using ‘‘fixed’’ rents, and these had been converted to ‘‘turnover based rents’’. The new terms mean the more the kiosks earn, the more the council gets.

Luxton said businesses had to make a profit and  she believed the council’s insistence on the kiosks staying open all day every day (except Christmas Day) would prove onerous in winter, especially.

‘‘If it’s raining, we’re still supposed to be open under the terms of the lease until 4.30pm or 5pm in the dead of winter, paying someone $20 an hour to stay open,’’  Luxton said.

‘‘Nobody is going to make any money in those conditions.’’

She said Hudson had nine businesses across the Hunter and did event catering to 20,000 people at a time.

‘‘To me its a normal business lease, if you lose one you work out how you lost it and you try to get it back in five years’ time and even though Mark has other businesses too, Merewether was his cafe and he lost it, and I can see where he is hurting,’’  Luxton said.

‘‘But everyone has to move forward and look on the bright side of things.’’

Merewether woman Glenis Powell, a retired school teacher whose latter day pursuits include a community newsletter called Making Waves, says the council has alienated a lot of people at Merewether with a lot of glossy pamphlets and ‘‘pretend’’ consultation.

‘‘The microcosm of the community has gone out the window,’’ Powell said.

Former councillor Aaron Buman – who had previously raised concerns about council tendering processes – said  councillors were not told the identity of the winning Merewether tenderer beyond the company name, Alepohori Pty Ltd.

‘‘We didn’t know who that was, and I don’t think we needed to know,’’ he  said.

He said the council shakeup of the kiosks and the other coastal work was ‘‘years overdue’’.

He knew the surf clubs were unhappy at losing control of the kiosks but the coastal reserve trust that the council had set up with Hunter Surf Life Saving chief executive Rhonda Scruton and former Newcastle MP Jodi McKay would hopefully return enough money to the clubs to improve their finances.

‘‘Newcastle people will complain about anything, but we have to get people out of their cars and give the beach and the foreshore back to the pedestrians,’’ Buman said.

 The successful Merewether tenderer, Peter James, said he felt like the new kid on the block and was conscious of setting up shop in a very ‘‘territorial area’’.

‘‘I totally understand the situation because if it wasn’t for Mark [Prince] I wouldn’t have the opportunity to set up in an area that was created by him,’’  James said.

‘‘But Mark isn’t the only one. There’s a family at Nobbys had been there for 30years that isn’t there any more.

‘‘But it’s about us giving back to the community, because the rent I pay to the council goes back to be spent on coastal projects.’’

James said he was expecting things to be ‘‘very negative’’ when he arrived but he had been ‘‘totally overwhelmed’’ by the response from the locals.

He understood the complaints about disruption –  his business had been impacted by a lack of access – but he was ‘‘looking forward to the next five years, not worrying about the next few months’’. 

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