A Tale of Two Cities

Napier NZ  v  Fremantle WA

Should Napier’s Financial Recovery be Studied as a Template for Fremantle’s Future?

Visiting Napier in New Zealand is a revealing and somewhat elevating experience. It is worth comparing Napier to Fremantle.

Situated in Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of North Island, Napier is as remote a place as you could wish to find. About 30 years ago the city was staring in the teeth of financial ruin and only had a couple of claims to fame. It is one of the first places in the world to see the light of a new day and the original city was wiped out by an earthquake early in 1931. Following the earthquake a firestorm incinerated those buildings left standing apart from a small group of wooden houses on the beach front. They are still there.

Apart from making headlines following the earthquake the city may have remained unnoticed to this day –  isolated in one of the most remote countries in the world.

Napier - Art Deco detail as far as they eye can see. © Roger Garwood 2013
Napier – Art Deco detail as far as the eye can see.
© Roger Garwood 2013

In the aftermath of the earthquake Napier went through a total rebuild.  Four architectural firms co-operated and redesigned the city at the height of the Art Deco era. Using a combination of inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright , Maori motifs and  influences of the Spanish Mission style the city was totally rebuilt within two years.

In 1985, with financial gloom on the horizon, Napier needed a wake up call and it came when a small group of concerned residents saw potential for tourism.  An Art Deco Trust was established to underpin what is now one of New Zealand’s major industries, tourism.The Trust had recognised the city’s architecture could become the cornerstone of  financial revival. They were right.

Napier: Riding on the back of an Art Deco Wave are Astronomic Tourist Figures

Napier is now recognised as the worlds best preserved enclave of Art Deco architecture. That may be stretching a point as Miami in Florida could possibly lay the same claim. Nevertheless the Art Deco society promoted the city as such. Tourism statistics are now astronomic. In a recent 12 months period over 75 cruise liners visited the city, each packed to the gunnels with close to 2000 visitors. In addition the city hosted 1,600,000 tourists and of those over 600,000 stayed in hotels or other accommodation for one night or more.

In a recent broadcast of  ABC Radio’s Correspondents’ Report Dominique Schwartz interviewed Napier’s mayor, Barbara Arnott, who was expounding the virtues of Napier’s architectural trove.  ” … [tourism] generated fifteen million dollars just this weekend, but this weekend is the tip of the iceberg. We have Art Deco 365 days a year. And for Napier it is our point of difference”.

Napier, promoting itself as the world's Art Deco capital, attracts in excess of two million visitors a year.  This is the entrance to the Tobacco Company office © Roger Garwood 2013
Napier, promoting itself as the world’s Art Deco capital, attracts in excess of two million visitors a year. This is the entrance to the Tobacco Company office
© Roger Garwood 2013

The mayor continued: “It’s huge, not just for Napier but for the whole of Hawke’s Bay. Our accommodation is booked out, usually a year ahead, throughout the whole of Hawke’s Bay.”

Thus, riding on the back of its architecture, Napier performed a financial miracle. The town looks prosperous.  Comfortable street furniture situated in bright and airy pedestrian malls is placed under shady trees. The malls and streets meander though an Art Deco time warp and host  high quality shops which range from clothing stores, art galleries, restaurants, antique shops and general stores. It seems that flowers are everywhere and Art Deco sunrise motifs  rise from many building. Waterfront cafes are blooming and booming but principally this is a city of people who picked up a simple  idea, planned it thoroughly and used it to propel them into a secure financial future.

And here’s the rub. Fremantle’s gold rush architecture leaves Napier for dead.

High Street,  Fremantle. The world's finest example of gold rush architecture. © Roger Garwood 2013
High Street, Fremantle. The world’s finest example of gold rush architecture.
© Roger Garwood 2013

Fremantle: Riding on the Back of a Coffee Bean

In 1985, at the time when Napier woke up to its major asset, Fremantle was cresting the wave of America’s Cup fever. The city got a coat of paint and hosted about 40,000 visitors for close to three years. And then, with little more than a puff of wind, Fremantle fell off that wave and is now experiencing what may become the worst financial downturn in the city’s history.

The old adage is ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going”. And the tough did get going in Napier.

The problems with Fremantle have been well documented. The city is looking shabby, it has problems with social behaviour and violence, its service industry is second-rate. Shops are closing, rents are higher than anywhere in the world and days when Fremantle can ride on the back of a coffee bean are rapidly coming to an end.

South Terrace. Fremantle's economy rides  on the back of a coffee bean.  © Roger Garwood 2013
South Terrace. Fremantle’s economy rides on the back of a coffee bean.
© Roger Garwood 2013

Revival urgently needs kick starting with lateral thinking. What is wrong with The Fremantle Society  encompassing the potential of tourism? The combination of gold rush architecture and Fremantle’s overall history, marketed well,  would be a giant tourist magnet. Backed by BID, The Chamber of Commerce, WA Tourism Commission and Ficra as well as the City Council, all pulling in the same direction, it would be possible to turn the city’s current economy around in a short space of time.

Any one of Fremantle’s disparate groups could become the figurehead for a tourist led recovery. The Fremantle Society previously saved the city from structural disasters. It has the ability to follow that success through by utilising in-depth knowledge of the city’s architectural ancestry. Linking Fremantle’s potential with Kalgoorlie’s tourism promoters would be  feasible. The cities share a common historical foundation in a deep-rooted gold rush history and are linked by the umbilical cord of a railway line. The romance of gold, history and architecture – the finest of its genre in the world – could be marketed with a little imagination and a few people pooling common interests.

Send in a Gunboat – or a Delegation

The city’s principal asset is iconic West End architecture. Partly a result of the Fremantle Society’s past efforts it is the world’s best preserved 19th century port. With careful management and a touch of civic pride it can attract many more visitors from overseas. At present the economy will not turn around without more people visiting and spending  money in a revitalised city.

A starting point could be to send a delegation to Napier from The Fremantle Society, Fremantle City  Council, The WA Department for Tourism, BID and The Chamber of Commerce to speak with the groups who have made tourism work so well for them.

Market Street. Iconic buildlngs on every corner. © Roger Garwood 2103
Market Street. Fremantle has iconic buildings on every corner.
© Roger Garwood 2103
Advertisements

What a Week That Was

 It started with a public meeting and finished with a war cry : ‘We Have A Vision For Fremantle’

Two weeks ago the Fremantle Inner City Residents Association (Ficra) called a public meeting, chaired by Dick Baynam, to discuss three major issues which may affect the city’s future development: The Wardens’ Cottages in Henderson Street; the issue of a youth plaza and it’s placement on The Esplanade and issues surrounding the development of Arthur Head as an arts and heritage precinct.

The meeting was well organised and former councillor John Dowson made five-minute presentations prior to the discussion of each issue. It had the potential to show what can be achieved with public input. Inexplicably some of the 200 attendees jeered the mayor, Dr Brad Pettitt, as he attempted to clarify issues.

In hindsight Ficra must see it as an error of judgement to discuss three major issues at one meeting. The net result was that two points, those related to the cottages and Arthur Head were completely lost in what amounted to a slanging match between West End  residents and about a dozen skateboard park supporters who sometimes struggled to be heard.

While the meeting didn’t quite descend into chaos the mayor and Dick Baynam did have a heated discussion when the meeting closed.

Councillor Coggin: ‘We’re Not Mad’

The following Wednesday a general meeting of the Fremantle City Council was held and important lessons must be learnt from it. Principally Ficra and the Fremantle Society must realise if they wish to gain any traction against changes in Fremantle they have to understand the power of social media  and the necessity to deliver messages succinctly across a broad base of residents.

With little effort the supporters of a Youth Plaza were able to encourage approximately two hundred skaters into the council chamber. Skaters confirmed they had responded to a Facebook posting.  Well briefed enthusiasts, parents and teachers outlined their reasons for a skateboard park to be constructed in Fremantle, supporting the council’s preferred site of The Esplanade. The case was eloquently repeated by skaters aged anywhere between 15 and 40 who were greeted with rousing applause.

To coin a skateboarding term they effectively  ‘kick flipped’ Ficra out of the debate. The evening finished with majority vote by councillors in favour of the skateboard park to be built on The Esplanade. Councillor Dave Coggin, in a moment of Churchillian eloquence and speaking on behalf of a united council effectively concluded the debate with a rallying cry:

“We are not mad. We know exactly what we are doing. We have a vision for Fremantle as a vibrant, creative and welcoming place. For more people living, working and recreating in Fremantle. Children and Youth are a core part of that vision, which is why we are welcoming them into our hearts with the Esplanade Youth Plaza”.

No Alternative

A point made after the meeting by Councillor Andrew Sullivan was that nobody, at any point in either debate, had offered a realistic alternative to the Esplanade site.

He said:  “Objectors are telling us they’d support the Youth Plaza if it were built somewhere else but they’re being disingenuous because the only sites they mention are on the fringes of the City. Those who oppose the Esplanade would be even more outraged if we moved it to Kings Square, Pioneer Reserve or Princess May Park”.

Sullivan continued: “Modern thinking on providing facilities for young people is they need to be located in the inner city where they feel safe and included. They need to be located where there is a mix of activities for toddlers through to teens so that parents can take the whole family to the one central place. It’s not easy finding a public place large enough to accommodate these different and often competing needs.
“The Esplanade is our largest inner city park and even when 20,000 people turned up to watch John Butler there was still loads of unused space, mostly where we want to put the plaza. The proposal locates the facility in the least used and most barren section of the park.
“It proposes a lot of new landscaping including seating and shade trees – it’s not just a concrete bowl. Hence, it will have far more appeal than just for skaters. I’ll certainly be very proud when it is completed”.

Will Ficra and Fremantle Society Fightback?  An Opportunity For Strong Leadership

The back to back meetings represented a setback for Ficra. Both the Fremantle Society and Ficra, who seem to have  similar broad based interests, must develop a strong plan to carry their opposition forward. They stand against a united council who rightly believe they have control of the ball and are running with it.

Now that Roel Loopers has resigned from the Fremantle Society presidency (for the second time) there is a real opportunity for the society to elect a strong, unambiguous, leader.

Loopers finally admitted failure in his presidency of the society. In his resignation he said:
“I have had enough of ramming my head against brick walls, my input being ignored, and my time on workshops and committees being taken for granted. When elected members become arrogant and patronising and unwilling to compromise at any level, it is time to move on and stop wasting my time.”

Build on Overwhelming Vote

The only chance these organisations have of overturning or modifying plans they disagree with is to do so from within the council chamber. They certainly have the numbers to fight an effective election campaign in September but they should signal their intention to challenge for seats now, promote their policies and present credible candidates. It will be essential to accommodate social media in their planning – they have just witnessed how effective it is.

Former deputy mayor John Dowson said: “It is sad council has not put this out for public consultation”  but in agreeing that residents want to have good youth facilities in Fremantle he reiterated  the feelings of the previous night’s meeting at which an overwhelming vote against the Esplanade site was recorded.

The vote at the public meeting was close to unanimous. Several councillors who attended would attest to that but without a well organised campaign it is unlikely that challenges to current planning will be effective.