IT’S Newcastle’s most important, yet shabbiest street.
For lease and for sale signs have peppered the 3.4-kilometre stretch of Hunter Street for more than 40 years.
A strip that was once the heart of a thriving commercial hub is today a shadow of its former self: many of the businesses are gone and so are the crowds of people.
Abandoned shops – boarded up or with windows smashed – are a sad reminder of what was once the city’s hub of trade.
A Newcastle Herald investigation found almost every fifth building or office space on street level this week derelict or vacant, with the majority owned by Hunter residents.
According to title searches, there are 750 properties in Hunter Street, with few consolidated blocks of ownership.
About 63per cent of buildings are owned by individuals, the remainder held by businesses, private companies, the Catholic Church, Newcastle City Council and Port Stephens Council.
While real estate agents estimate the long-term empty retail and commercial space costs property owners millions in lost rent each year, it’s not just an economic equation.
For too long the unoccupied shops have given the sense of a town that has seen better days.
For 34 years, retailer Colin Scott has watched the ‘‘heart and soul’’ of Newcastle’s central business district ‘‘gradually fade away’’.
While the Frontline Hobbies owner is critical of the ‘‘decades of neglect’’, he believes something started to change in Hunter Street about nine months ago.
‘‘I spend a lot of time in town, I am here every day and I have seen things go backwards for decades, there is no mistaking that,’’ Mr Scott said.
‘‘But suddenly there are more people in the mall and Hunter Street in general. While it might seem hard for some people to believe, I honestly think we have turned a corner.’’
Mr Scott, and many other retailers, are confident 2013 will be an historic first step towards a new future for Newcastle’s tired and much-maligned CBD.
While many point to the O’Farrell government’s plan to contribute $460million for a Newcastle CBD light rail system or Newcastle University securing $30million to move into the inner-city as the game changers, others argue things were already well under way.
Lord mayor Jeff McCloy said that since the decision to cut the rail line was made, he has had five ‘‘serious discussions’’ with companies ‘‘regarding substantial new projects’’ for the CBD.
Projects include residential units, commercial buildings, a hotel, and car park developments.
Cr McCloy, who was elected last year on a platform of delivering results in Hunter Street, said he understood people’s frustrations.
But he said the groundwork was done, change was happening and the street was ‘‘literally a work in progress’’.
In 2008 when Marcus Westbury began Renew Newcastle, a creative arts project designed to breathe new life into vacant buildings, there were about 150 empty shops in and around Hunter Street, including 20 in the mall.
A year later a Herald survey of Hunter Street found 121 unleased or derelict buildings on street level.
At the time the empty spaces were equivalent to about half of Westfield Kotara, which had 255 shops, or about two-thirds of Charlestown Square, which had 170 retailers.
In January, the Herald recorded 74 vacant shops and offices on street level, with more than a dozen earmarked for re-development.
This week there were 68 vacant shops and offices.
In the past year the mall has undergone a latte-led recovery, but Mr Westbury said the look of Hunter Street west of Darby Street was ‘‘palpable’’.
He said previous government attempts to turn the decline had resulted largely in a black hole of consultants’ fees, and years of identifying the problems hadn’t led to them being resolved.
Cynicism about large-scale change has been fed by at least 43 studies and reports on how to improve the inner-city and transport options between 2003 and 2010.
‘‘The scale of the problem is pretty huge,’’ Mr Westbury said.
‘‘We have probably spent 50 years going backwards and there has always been a plan that is five years away.
‘‘People are always looking over the horizon at the expense of how we can make the street better tomorrow and that is what we have been focusing on.’’
Newcastle NOW executive manager Michael Neilson agreed the city can no longer ‘‘just look to another plan and have another talkfest’’.
Mr Neilson’s organisation changed its mandate last year to focus on becoming a business improvement association for the city.
He said people could not ‘‘sit back’’ and wait for a magic wand to be waved to solve all the problems.
‘‘It doesn’t work like that, we’re looking at low-cost projects that can have a high impact,’’ he said.
The aim is to bring together stakeholders, particularly the property owners, traders and residents, to produce the drive for change.
Establishing a common city brand, Newcastle See Change, and placemaking initiatives are key to the strategy.
These include murals, mobilising vacant land by using sea containers to house businesses and writing to landlords to offer assistance.
A longer-term plan includes targeting young IT entrepreneurs – many of whom work in their garages – to establish a creative hub in the CBD.
‘‘Our dealings with the landlords have been really good, besides a few,’’ Mr Neilson said.
‘‘We’ll move on and work with the people who want to work with us and expose the people who don’t.’’
For years many landlords have seen no merit in maintaining the appearance of their properties.
One owner, who declined to be identified, told the Herald he was financially better off letting his building decay and accumulating tax credits via negative gearing than maintaining the building.
Newcastle City Council and Newcastle NOW joined forces to open a $120,000 facade restoration scheme in April offering $4000 for projects aimed at fixing up tired and derelict buildings.
They received 58 applications and Mr Neilson is hopeful the scheme will be extended to a second round.
Herron Todd White commercial valuations manager Ed Thwaites said while there had been no movement in property prices since the rail line removal announcement, growth was predicted for the strip.
He said some owners would prefer to sell, but didn’t want to crystalise a loss, which meant a lot of derelict sites sat on the market for a long time.
‘‘We do expect to see growth due to the government expenditure,’’ he said.
‘‘But there needs to be an increase in population in the city before we see much happening in terms of price.’’
No one is arguing about how long major change will take.
Mr Thwaites agreed with Newcastle developer Keith Stronach that 20 years is a realistic timeframe for a new CBD to emerge.
Property Council of Australia’s Hunter director Andrew Fletcher said with solid plans finalised this year it should be ‘‘pens down and shovels out in 2014’’.
Mr Fletcher said a major hurdle for developers looking at Newcastle CBD was the cost of remediation work linked to mine subsidence.
He estimated it could add up to 5per cent on the cost of a project.
‘‘Mine subsidence is our unique problem child and it can’t be underestimated,’’ he said.
‘‘We will be putting forward a funding solution for that in coming months and we need to see some leadership from government to provide a level playing field so Newcastle is not held back.’’
Hunter Business Chamber chief executive Kristen Keegan said she had no doubt the city centre could live again.
Ms Keegan said the key was to get the investment climate right.