Bid to make post office arts hub

A NATIONAL arts organisation has unveiled plans to transform Newcastle's former post office building into a hub for performances, exhibitions, independent films and community events.

The Arts Health Institute and Newcastle firm EJE Architecture have developed detailed plans for the heritage-listed sandstone building incorporating a cafe/restaurant and a Melbourne-style laneway.

The basement would feature an art house cinema and exhibition space, while the large ground floor area would be used to host large performances, events and exhibitions.

Arts Health Institute chief executive Maggie Haertsch said a key aspect of the plan was opening up the 1904 building to the public.

"To me the post office is the heart of the city . . . [its condition] affects how people feel about the city," Dr Haertsch said.

"As a city we should not be selling ourselves short."

The institute runs nationwide programs that look to integrate the arts into health and aged care environments.

Dr Haertsch said its plan was to act as "custodians" of the post office building, which could also be used by community organisations or to host concerts or travelling exhibitions.

"We want the support of the people and for people to believe that we can do it," Dr Haertsch said.

The proposal will compete with other suitors for the building.

Most notably, Newcastle lord mayor Jeff McCloy wants to use the post office to house the city's gallery expansion and is expected to bring his plan to the city council this month.

Newcastle MP Tim Owen said yesterday the University of Newcastle Alumni Association had "first dibs" on the building, which will cost an estimated $10-$15 million to repair.

Mr Owen said yesterday he had spoken with Dr Haertsch and thought the institute's idea "sounds interesting".

The institute would attempt to raise funds to help meet the refurbishment costs. Nothing is likely to be known until an Aboriginal land claim, due to begin in court on March 4, is resolved.

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