Newcastle Anzac Walk: The hard path to success

Neil Slater on the Anzac Walk. Pic: Simone De Peak
Neil Slater on the Anzac Walk. Pic: Simone De Peak

IT'S mid-February. There's an election around the corner and the first Y-shaped stanchions supporting the Memorial Walk are appearing, as if by magic, every couple of mornings.

Soon after, the first of the stainless steel sections are fitted in - again overnight - and people everywhere are talking about it. It's selfies and iPhones wherever you look.

The timing is immaculate.

If things had gone according to plan, a Liberal member for Newcastle would be campaigning from the partly finished structure, proof that the 2011 swing away from Labor had been worth it.

But it was not to be.

As everyone knows, the former member for Newcastle, Timothy Francis Owen, was one of 10 NSW Liberals whose careers were skewered by the ICAC corruption scandals, and he resigned his seat in August last year.

Labor's Tim Crakanthorp returned the seat to the Labor fold in the October byelection and held it in last week's general election.

Perhaps it's a good thing that the politics have been kept out of Memorial Walk, which is scheduled to be opened in a ceremony at dusk on April 24, the eve before Anzac Day.

But it is ironic that the person who did more than anyone to secure the bulk of the funding is now, very much, a nowhere man.

And it's an irony not lost on the person who sold Owen on the idea in the first place, Newcastle restaurateur Neil Slater, of Scratchleys on the Wharf fame.

Over a couple of hours spent with Slater last week, the 58-year-old was unstinting in his praise of Owen, and the efforts he went to in obtaining $3 million of the $4.8 million in funding that it's taken to build the Memorial Walk and attach it to the Newcastle City Council project, Bathers Way.

As Slater tells it, he was part of a council tourism advisory board in the late 1990s when the Bathers Way was brought into being on paper.

Walking regularly up the hill he'd think "the Bathers Way is this insanely good project, but putting it on the top of the hill would be so much better".

"They'd say it couldn't be done; it's the money, Neil," he recollects.

And that might have been the end of it.

Slater had already seen two of his projects - a Shepherds Hill gunners' cottage cafe and a renewably powered, eco-friendly Hunter's Ark restaurant on top of the bunker-like concrete Nobbys boatshed - rejected, and he was well aware of the vagaries of project development.

But the idea of a cliff-top walk south from Strzelecki Lookout never went away.

None

Even through the difficult years, when Slater's next grand plan, for a restaurant and accommodation on Nobbys headland, was being buffeted backwards and forwards, the idea never left him.

One of his main inspirations had been the Bondi to Coogee walk, a cliff-top path extending for six kilometres around the eastern suburbs coastline. But things really clicked into gear when he saw the "missing link" in the walk - a section across historic Waverley Cemetery - opened in September 2009.

The Bondi to Tamarama section of the walk is also home to Sculpture by the Sea, an annual exhibition that turns 19 this year, and which has grown to attract more than 100 sculptures by artists from around the world.

Slater, like former lord mayor Jeff McCloy, is a big fan of public art, and imagines sculptures and installations along the Bathers Way as part of its ultimate realisation.

The annual sculpture exhibition runs each October and November and Slater says he came back from the 2010 show fired with determination.

He says he spoke to Jodi McKay, then the member for Newcastle, and John Tate, the lord mayor who was challenging her in the March 2011 poll.

"I said, 'Come and walk with me', and they both said, 'No, I've got an election to win'," Slater says.

"I said, 'OK, someone's going to win, but what are we going to get for it?'"

Exasperated at the response, he said he called his friend and long-time collaborator, architect Barney Collins, and said "here, draw me the bridge".

"I've got this image, but I can't get Muhammad to come to the mountain, so we'll take the mountain to Muhammad," Slater says. "So he draws it, and as luck has it, this fellow rings me and says, my name is Tim Owen, I would like to talk with you."

Slater says "the drawings, the pretty pictures, have arrived literally two days before".

"Tim says, 'What do you want Newcastle to look like?' and I go [unrolling a symbolic roll of drawings] . . . well, as a matter of fact, here I have set of drawings and plans.

"Tim says, 'I know I am only going to get four things done during my tenure - that's four more than most people want to get in their tenure - and this project is one of them'. He said, 'wow, this looks unreal'."

History shows that Owen was elected in one of the more unexpected results of the 2011 O'Farrell landslide.

"But they get in and say, in true Liberal style - and remembering I'm probably more on their side than the other - they say the books are much worse than we thought," Slater says. "There's no money. How unusual is that . . .

"Usually our politicians will say, sorry, there's no money, we can't do anything, but he's unperturbed. He goes to to BHP Billiton in Melbourne and got $3 million for a project that at that stage was supposed to cost $2.6 million."

But costs, understandably, began to rise.

Against Labor opposition in the second half of 2013, Newcastle City Council eventually agreed to contribute $1.5 million, money that Slater says has paid for the connecting set of stairs that joins the southern end of the walk with the Bathers Way footpath on Memorial Drive.

The state government's Roads and Maritime Services contributed geotechnical services to the value of $350,000.

The Hunter Development Corporation managed the project, with 17 firms, most of them based in the Hunter, responsible for various parts of the project.

Waeger Constructions from Rutherford cast the stanchions and managed the construction. Tomago firm SGM Fabrication and Construction did most of the steelwork, all of it in marine grade stainless.

The lightweight square-section structural frame and the walkway decking are both proprietary "composite" or fibre-reinforced products.

Slater and Collins say this combination of materials meets Newcastle council's requirement that the entire walkway is effectively guaranteed maintenance-free for 70 years.

Slater says another site difficulty - the discovery of the coastally rare kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) - meant they could not put concrete steps on the hill leading down from the walk to the Memorial Drive footpath.

Instead, the steps are made of the same material as the rest of the project, and held off the ground on poles that will allow the kangaroo grass to grow, unimpeded, underneath.

Slater says the Anzac theme was not part of the original idea, but emerged when Collins began his historical investigation of the area, revealing that Memorial Drive had been built in 1921 to remember the sacrifices of the Great War.

Collins also pointed out the alignment of two important anniversaries.

This year, 2015 would be the centenary of Anzac. The Newcastle steelworks opened in 1913, but the first steel - railway tracks destined for the European conflict - left the works in 1915.

Detail of the Hunter's involvement in the Great War came from the region's go-to military historian, David Dial.

Using his extensive data base, Dial compiled the names of some 11,000 Hunter men and women who served in the conflict.

This was then honed down to a list of some 3600 surnames. These are engraved, in alphabetical order, on a series of life-sized plate steel figures - silhouettes of armed services personnel - affixed to the railings at either end of the walk.

They do not constitute a definitive list. Dial says another surname has already emerged in the months since the list was compiled. But the overall effect of the memorial, with its images of airmen, sailors and nurses, and its chronological record of major battles involving Hunter personnel, portrays a broader image of war than simply the archetypal slouch-hatted diggers of Gallipoli.

Some elements may not be obvious until pointed out. Collins says the spiralling curve of stainless tubing running the length of the walkway has been shaped - while giving strength to the structure - to evoke the double helix of DNA being used, a century on, to identify battlefield remains.

In a similar fashion, Collins says the Y-shape of the main stanchions, slimmed down from the original version, suggest the lingering question asked after every war: "Why?"

But as compelling as Memorial Walk is as a structural paean to military sacrifice, for most people, the view will be the main attraction.

And what a view it is.

Slater says his initial vision of a bridge affixed to the ocean side of the cliff face, directly above the rock shelf below, was ruled out on engineering and cost grounds.

The eventual outcome, a path that sits above the top of the cliff, a metre or two back from the edge, provides an equally compelling long-distance view, although without the vertigo-inducing impact that would have come from looking straight down to the rocks far below.

It's a view at once familiar - the scenery south from Bar Beach to Merewether and Dudley is a favourite backdrop for tourists grabbing holiday snaps - but the extra elevation gives it an extra grandeur that even future familiarity would be unlikely to diminish.

Then there's the view to the west, back over the city and the historic "trig point" marker.

Although the evidence is circumstantial, Collins says there's a chance the 20th century trig station is in the same spot that colonial surveyor Henry Dangar used as the starting point for his 1822 survey of Kings Town, as Newcastle was formally known at the time, and the wider Hunter Valley.

"Governor Brisbane wrote to Dangar asking him to start his survey a mile south of the entrance Hunter River," Collins says.

The trig point is about 1.5 kilometres due south of the foreshore and Slater - in his eternally enthusiastic style - is adamant the identification is right.

"Everyone's worried about the history of this place but no one even knew why the bloody trig station was there because nobody could get to it," Slater says.

SO, who is the man whose energy and determination have turned a once dismissed notion into proud regional reality?

Born in September, 1956, Slater went to Marist Brothers, Hamilton, and counts two classmates, his long-time architectural collaborator, Barney Collins, and surf legend Mark Richards, as close friends.

He finished high school in 1975 and after graduating as a primary school teacher, taught at Forster and Wangi Wangi until 1982, when he did a year of hard physical work at Tomago smelter and other sites.

Departing for the snowfields in 1983, he met his partner, Donna Davis, in 1985. Now, they live at Merewether and have three children; Jackson, 23, Elkie, 21, and Zac, 16.

Their big break came in 1989 when they opened Scratchleys, having won a tender to use the ferry terminal building that stood on the site.

They expanded Scratchleys a decade later, in 1999, and have submitted plans to Newcastle council for another expansion - a $2 million overhaul that will improve things for diners, but also build on the energy efficiency and environmentally friendly waste management systems that Slater describes as an example of his practical environmentalism. "Doing it, rather than talking about it," he says.

Scratchleys gives Slater something in the way of media coverage, and it allows him to mix and mingle - as he acknowledges - with some rich and powerful people who drop in to eat at his tables.

But it's only a part of his CV.

After Scratchleys he started the Paymasters Cottage with Randolph Movik, who now owns the business outright. Working with Collins, they turned a derelict eyesore into an East End institution at a time when that part of town was a lot grungier than it is now.

Next up were two projects that did not reach completion - the Shepherds Hill cottage cafe, and the Hunter's Ark at Nobbys. Hunter's Ark, especially, was based on renewable principles. But both foundered because of environmental and heritage opposition.

Undaunted, Slater then embarked on the most controversial project of them all, the Nobbys headland restaurant and cabins.

Eight years and $320,000 later, Slater officially won the battle, gaining state and federal approval for the project, but by this stage it was too small, Slater says, to make it commercial.

In among this, Slater was responsible for two valuable charity initiatives. One is an annual fundraiser, the Gastronomic Lunch, which has raised more than $1.1 million since 2005 for the Hunter Medical Research Institute and other health-related causes.

The other, begun in early 2010, is the Newcastle arm of the not-for-profit "food rescue" operation OzHarvest, which was started in Sydney in 2004.

PERHAPS it's Slater's embrace of success that has made him, like other business figures in a town with Newcastle's long left-wing history, something of a polarising figure. Slater says working with OzHarvest was a better alternative than becoming "bitter and twisted" after the disappointment of Nobbys. But he says he feared for its future last year, when he found himself back in the spotlight as the ICAC steamroller smashed its way through the Liberal Party and its business mates.

"I got asked to go to ICAC and I was scared that that could have a detrimental impact on the sponsors that do OzHarvest," Slater says.

"I could stop Gastronomic Lunch. HMRI will survive without it. But I was not quite sure OzHarvest could survive without it so I was very cognisant that if I was seen to be the bad guy, and the face of OzHarvest, that that could be very detrimental to that cause and that was scary, and it's still scary, because there is no finding yet."

On personal criticism, Slater says: "The people who don't get me, don't understand that I want to do it regardless of profit. My [inspiration] goes back to being on the north coast in 1983, to hearing people rubbish Newcastle, but knowing that it's an unreal place.

"And that's where Nobbys came from, it's where Memorial Walk came from and I think even Scratchleys, as much as it has to make a profit, I'd like to think it adds to the amenity and the social life of the city."

One of the arguments against Slater's plans for Nobbys and the Shepherd's Hill cottage was that they would somehow restrict public access.

"I've always had this problem where people say 'what about the public?"' Slater says. "Well, who are the people inside there? What are they? I always thought they were the public. The public vote with their feet. When you do anything in a commercial sense they either come with you or they say you've messed it up."

Slater says his various projects have taken a toll.

"I would never touch anything that has a heritage order on it ever, ever again," Slater says. "Ever. And I would advise anyone who asks me never to touch anything that has a heritage preservation order on it.

"It's the most subjective, leftist notion of a thing I've ever come across in my life.

"The people who purvey that area are just so far off the chart that it's not funny."

He says the "Newcastle model" of preventing development is to ask a proponent what they need in a business plan, then approve something half the size.

"We didn't stop him, they say, the developer walked away. That's how they do it. The developer says this is the viability and the give him half viability.

"It has scarred me. Believe me."

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