Groundswell of support for small bars in Newcastle

The sign above the door at 529 Hunter Street reads The Poets Page, but Novocastrians have patronised this mustard-yellow terrace house through a procession of identities.

Formerly The Merry Magpie, The Gunfighter’s Rest and later JC’s Bar, it is scheduled to open on June 22, after a decade lying dormant, as The Terrace Bar.

Proprietor Chris Hearn – complete with paint-flecked blond hair – came to the door to welcome H2 Review into the premises.

Hearn has played an integral role in Newcastle’s creative community since he arrived 10 years ago to study a music business certificate at TAFE, including organising events at the Croatian Wickham Sports Club.

‘‘I wanted to open my own space just because I couldn’t find a venue in Newcastle that was suitable for the things I wanted to do, which are mostly underground and independent music as well as different art forms,’’ he said. ‘‘I know there’s a lot of people creating lots of interesting stuff in Newcastle and who don’t really have anywhere to show it.’’

An exhibition space painted black on the second floor will host alternative musicians, independent films, poetry readings, small-scale performance art, micro-theatre, multimedia art, panel discussions, lectures and debates.

The second floor will also boast one of the city’s few rooftop beer gardens.

When visitors step into the ground floor, they will see a bar along the left wall serving boutique beers, Hunter Valley wines, cocktails and light meals. Mirrors, a coat rack, chandeliers, and framed landscape paintings will give the room a homely feel, while blue note jazz and ‘‘crooners’’ have been flagged for the playlist.

‘‘It’s very hard to make arts financially viable, fairly paying performers and artists and sound engineers and projectionists and door staff is quite difficult to do if you’re just having a cover charge,’’ Hearn said of his decision to combine a bar with performance space.

‘‘A lot of people expect to be able to go to an arts event for free so it seems you generally have to have arts funding or do it off your own back or have something operating in a pub.

‘‘I guess the difference is we’ll be selling liquor so we can pay for the rent of the space and that financial burden isn’t going to be on the artists.’’

ALREADY, Hearn’s venture has garnered a legion of loyal followers.

When he posted a photo of the liquor licence on The Terrace Bar’s Facebook page at 2pm on May 9, it sparked a flurry of chatter across Facebook, Twitter and music news websites.

Matthew Endacott said he believed the anticipation surrounding the opening of The Terrace Bar had created a favourable context for the city to support more small bars in the CBD.

A seventh-generation Novocastrian who will soon complete a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney, Endacott’s online petition encouraging the council to provide such support has attracted more than 3900 signatures.

Endacott, 21, was inspired by his own patronage of Sydney small bars Grandma’s, Grasshopper and The Baxter Inn, during a Renew Newcastle tour.

Renew organisers frequently lead Friday night tours of its projects – mostly shops and galleries in the Hunter Street Mall – with visitors welcome to browse and enjoy complimentary food and beverages.

‘‘They were sort of playing the role of small bars for that night and they have ever since, but only on select evenings,’’ Endacott said. ‘‘The positive impact of that on the neighbourhood was just so obvious and if you could have something permanently like that operating there’s no reason why that area couldn’t be like that every Friday, Saturday, even Thursday and weeknights.’’

Within the first 24 hours of posting his petition in April, it had more than 1700 supporters.

‘‘I think what they’re trying to say is their needs and wants aren’t being met in Newcastle at the moment,’’ he said. ‘‘I think the market certainly exists. Smaller cities have numerous bars and it works. I think it’s about establishing culture firstly, though.’’

‘‘I picked a phrase out of the menu at Grandma’s – drink less, drink better.

‘‘I think that’s the entire mentality of small bars, its about quality, not quantity.’’

RENEW Newcastle founder Marcus Westbury – who now lives in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick with shopfront bars 500metres in each direction from his home – has pledged his support for the petition.

Westbury said Newcastle needed to increase the diversity of its alternatives to large-scale venues and said small bars were ‘‘an absolute perfect fit’’.

‘‘I don’t know how many times I’ve been out with friends in Newcastle and hit a certain hour of the night and realised there’s just nowhere to go,’’ he said. ‘‘Certainly around the inner city most of the places are the wrong scale and the wrong fit-out, the wrong type to lend themselves to having a quiet drink at 10pm on a Thursday night.

‘‘It’s not the big-venue, high-capacity thing shouldn’t exist, but it should be part of a spectrum. The spectrum is much healthier when you don’t force everyone to go out to places full of poker machines and loud music a lot of the time.

‘‘I think one of the problems at the moment is that the city’s got massive big venues that people roam around between all night and I think the beauty of a smaller venue is not that people go to 100 of them but that you get a smaller more intimate sense of people knowing each other.’’

Sydney has about 50 small bars throughout its CBD and inner-city suburbs, mostly aimed at women in their mid-20s, who bring their partners and friends.

Endacott envisaged Newcastle could support four or five such establishments, which might start by opening on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays to establish a relationship with the after-work crowd, more mature drinkers and tourists in search of a quiet aperitif.

He said the design and aesthetic of the city’s east end – its ‘‘centre of alternative cultures’’ – was most conducive to small bars.

‘‘You’re never going to have nightclubs working in that atmosphere because it’s very much a neighbourhood atmosphere,’’ he said. ‘‘Although it’s a city centre, it’s still in many ways a village.

‘‘If you could make that [the east end] a really clear neighbourhood, even as simple as putting old fashioned street lamps in that particular quarter to make it distinctive – this is what the east end is – then you have official boundaries for small business owners to look at the area and say, all right, we’re going to open a small bar, we want to be part of the tone of this neighbourhood, these are the boundaries, let’s find real estate in that pocket.’’

Endacott is particularly interested in bars that will increase the amenity of underused precincts and lanes characterised by urban decay.

It would be ideal, he said, to eventually spread the benefits out across different pockets of the city, including – as many Herald readers have suggested – Devonshire Street near the site of the former Star Hotel in Newcastle West.

WHILE there is plenty of rhetoric about what a new Newcastle nightlife might look like, there is also plenty of regulation around the framework for how it can be established.

The NSW government passed a ‘‘small bars bill’’ in 2008 removing red tape for bars with a proposed capacity of fewer than 120 people.

It resulted in the introduction of a new category of hotel licence for a general bar, which allows venues to sell liquor for consumption on the premises but not to operate gaming machines or offer takeaway sales.

Applicants to the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing must prepare a community impact statement to lodge with the licence application, which costs $500.

The statement requires applicants to consult with the police, council, Roads and Maritime Services, Department of Community Services, the Department of Health and nearby residents and outline how any concerns might be addressed.

‘‘The [Independent Liquor and Gaming] Authority takes into account a range of matters when assessing liquor licence application including the proposed trading hours, proximity to hospitals, schools, churches and parks, issues raised during the public consultation process, density of licensed venues in the immediate area and local demographics and alcohol-related crime statistics,’’ an Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing spokesman said.

An application for a liquor licence can be made concurrently with a development application, but the office will not grant a licence without an approved development application.

Councils are usually responsible for setting patron limits under their planning laws, with the general bar licence usually used by venues with a capacity of 120.

Hearn signed the lease for The Terrace Bar in September and applied for a development application immediately. It was approved in January.

Newcastle lord mayor John Tate said despite some assumptions otherwise, councillors would most likely be in favour of more small bars like Hearn’s, because they fitted with the council’s blueprint for the city.

The council identified in its Safe Newcastle – Alcohol Management Strategy 2010-2013 the need to develop strategies to improve and encourage diversity in evening and late night businesses and entertainment. A draft plan will cover trading hours, liquor outlet density and management requirements.

‘‘I can’t pre-empt what councillors will do, but generally small bar applications would be supported, I expect,’’ Tate said.

‘‘Personally there would have to be some serious reason why I wouldn’t support it, because I think small bars will change our culture in the way we consume alcohol and enhance nightlife.’’

Tate said the city was not in a position to offer the same grants as the City of Sydney, which extended up to $30,000 to businesses to revitalise the city’s laneways. He said he didn’t know of any unused council-owned buildings in the CBD but he would be open to allowing a small bar tenant if a building became available.

To bring his concept to fruition, Hearn received financial assistance from the federal government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme and guidance from Renew Newcastle, which considered the bar a special project because of its creative and cultural ethos.

NEWCASTLE City crime manager Detective Chief Inspector Wayne Humphrey said while every licence application was dealt with individually, in general the police did not support an increase in the number of liquor licences.

According to the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing, there were 407 liquor licences in the Newcastle local government area and 119 in the city’s CBD in March.

‘‘There’s been sufficient studies in both the city and Melbourne that suggests restaurants are a much better way of increasing the vibrancy in the city and they still operate in some places with a PSA, a primary service authority,’’ Humphrey said.

‘‘There’s no suggestion [more licences will] do anything but increase what we’ve started to decrease in the way of alcohol-related violence and crime.

‘‘There’s plenty of pubs and clubs in the town that cater for people that just want to go and have one drink and go home. Problems come when someone comes from a hotel who may well have been ejected and they wander into your premises where you don’t have [as much] security because you’re a small bar.’’

Endacott countered this by saying that in the year the City of Sydney began supporting small bars, the number of alcohol-related assaults across all Sydney licensed premises had fallen to 2821, down from 3528 in 2008. He said there had not been an assault recorded in any of Sydney’s small bars.

There are currently no applications before the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing for general bar licences in Newcastle, but there are indications from many stakeholders this may soon change.

Endacott said he had been contacted by Hunter Valley wineries eager to establish relationships with small bars, to target a new market and promote their region to tourists visiting the city.

Audrey Wilkinson sales and marketing director James Agnew said that small bars provided an opportunity for visitors to try wine from labels, varieties and regions for the first time.

‘‘Staff at small wine bars are very knowledgeable,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s increasingly hard to get a run in bigger restaurants and bars so in that way small bars are the nursery of wine.

‘‘They are vital for the wine industry. That’s where most brands get their start.’’

RENEW Newcastle general manager Marni Jackson said her organisation was willing to offer advice and information about vacant properties.

The organisation employed a staff member at the end of last year to look for new spaces in its target area – from Tudor Street to Pacific Street and all the side streets in between – and contact property owners about offering their space for temporary use.

Endacott has already been contacted by about eight prospective small bar operators eager to learn more. Some inquiries have come from unexpected sources, including from owners of espresso bars and Darby Street boutiques.

The co-owner of Sprocket Roasters and co-lessee of The Great Northern Hotel, Chelsea D’Aoust, said her cafe applied for an on-premises licence to sell alcohol when it opened in 2009. It currently creates coffee cocktails and sells bottled beer and wine.

‘‘We tried [staying open at night] when we first opened and it just wasn’t working because everyone vacates at five o’clock and unless they come into town for a gig there’s not a lot of pedestrian traffic in the area. It’s not like Darby Street or Beaumont Street where you just get people passing by,’’ she said.

Endacott will set up a temporary small bar this month where prospective small bar owners, councillors, winemakers and other interested parties can discuss the best way forward.

‘‘Our family albums are filled with photographs of grandparents and great grandparents on Hunter Street and in Newcastle and I’ve grown up looking at pictures of a city that I’ve never known,’’ he said.

‘‘I think what frustrates me the most about Newcastle is the people who are receptive to the fact that the main street is dead but don’t offer any solutions.’’ Endacott said. ‘‘So I feel that if I want to participate in this debate I need to offer solutions. I can’t be another person whingeing about it.’’

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