MORE than a third of the shops along Newcastle's once-proud Hunter Street are now empty or derelict.
A Herald survey last week found there were 121 unleased or derelict buildings between Tudor Street in Newcastle West and Pacific Street, out of a total of 349 shops, restaurants and offices.
The empty spaces along Hunter Street are equivalent to about half of Westfield Kotara, which has about 255 shops, or about two-thirds of Charlestown Square, which has 170 retailers.
The number of disused Hunter Street shop spaces has jumped more than 50 per cent in the past seven years. There were 80 unleased or derelict buildings in November 2002.
Business leaders and retailers have described the decline as a "disgrace" and an "embarrassment" for Newcastle, saying cracked windows, graffiti, boarded-up buildings and piles of litter are driving shoppers away and forcing traders out.
They say the empty shops are bleeding millions from the Hunter's economy each year and want the State Government to immediately adopt and implement the findings of the Hunter Development Corporation's city centre renewal plan.
The plan, issued in May, embraces investment for tertiary facilities in the CBD, an upgraded legal precinct and a new transport system.
Raine and Horne Commercial director Steven Dick said shop space along Hunter Street was capable of earning between $10,000 and $200,000 a year in rent.
But Mr Dick said many shops were impossible to rent due to their rundown state.
"It's derelict and very bad in some areas and getting people to move into those areas is not going to happen without major change," he said.
"Shopping centres have destroyed the Hunter Street of [the] past and we really need to look to a new approach and bringing people back into the city as the solution. The council needs to drive this rather than placing onerous restrictions on developers."
Colliers International Newcastle managing director Peter Dodds agreed there was no way of filling all the commercial and retail shops along Hunter Street, regardless of the prices offered.
Mr Dodds said lack of car spaces at many of the buildings and street parking meters were also a big deterrent.
"Some of the stuff, it would not matter what price we offered it at, no one would want it," Mr Dodds said.
"It comes down to the removal of the train line, government spending and beautification of the city."
Australian Property Council Hunter chapter chairman Bob Dupont said a lot of buildings in Hunter Street were "obsolete" and not suitable for modern retail or offices.
Mr Dupont said the only "serious way forward" was to knock many of the buildings down and "start again".
He said the global financial crisis had not helped with several major developments placed on hold in the past year.
"There is a feeling of not being safe in some parts of Hunter Street, there are sections that look like they are out of a zombie movie," he said.
"It's atrocious really and certainly not how anyone would like Newcastle portrayed."
Newcastle Alliance chairman and former Hunter Street business owner Paul Murphy said he would rather see vacant blocks of land than the growing number of boarded-up and derelict buildings.
Mr Murphy, whose family had a retail outlet in Hunter Street for more than 60 years, said he was forced to move due to the state of the surrounding streetscape.
He said while the mall area was improving, the West End was continually going backwards.
"It's totally the wrong feel and I don't blame people for not wanting to shop there. We were the last left in our area, but with how things are, there was no choice but to move."