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
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3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Excellent article Roger. Unfortunately council believes the heritage wars have been won and have turned their baseball caps backwards and skated off in other directions.

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  2. Roger ,quite right Fremantle has one of the worlds best collection of Goldrush Architecture and needs to become central to any plan to attract visitors .However having all those good italians has ensured that good food will also be part of that visit .
    The City of Fremantle and especially the councillors and Mayor need to understand this wonderful gift that was given to them by the prosperity of the Eastern Goldfields and especially Kalgoorlie that flowed from one of the greatest gold rushes .

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  3. Roger thanks for that really interesting article. Hopefully the forthcoming discussions on Freo will provide a similar pathway and strategies to build on Freo’s beautiful buildings. As one of our friends has often said, the beautiful elegant buildings in Paris are not much older than Freo’s West End.

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