BY LAWRENCE GIBBONS
In 2004 Clover Moore was first elected Lord Mayor and declared Sydney to be a “City of Villages.” Thirteen years later Sydney’s villages are under the threat of neglect.
In the lead up to her historic election, Clover Moore told the Sydney Morning Herald “the community would be consulted on how to develop the unique character of each village, and those that have lost their identity would be salvaged.” She also promised to establish an economic development unit to promote a return of small business.
For more than a decade the City has followed through on her commitment to promote, support and champion the unique identity of each village precinct. Through a Village Business Grant Program administered by the economic development unit, funds have been awarded so that local small businesses could market the special characteristics of each of the City’s distinct urban precincts.
Over the last five years the City has partnered with local business groups, investing $3.5 million into the program. 60% of those funds have gone towards marketing, 30% funded administrative support (so that volunteer based organisations comprised mostly of small businesses owners could deliver worthwhile outcomes) and 10% went into other “capacity building” exercises.
Under radical new grant guidelines that were tabled at this month’s City of Sydney committee meeting, all marketing, event and administrative support (90% of the former grant allocations awarded to local business groups) would be eliminated. The new policy is currently under review and if adopted only business to business “capacity building” programs would be funded with revenues allocated to local business groups slashed by more than 60%.
So why does it matter if Sydney’s business precincts are unable to market themselves in order to attract visitors and customers? Westfields and Mirvac run coordinated campaigns to ensure that locals spend money in shopping centres and not on the main street. Tenants are required to contribute to marketing costs which makes it very hard for independent, family-owned bricks and mortar businesses to compete. As more and more consumers are lured to shopping centres, main streets businesses are forced to closeup shop and the City’s unique business precincts become all the more homogenised.
The world’s greatest cities are mosaics of diverse and distinct urban precincts. London, New York and Paris offer residents, workers and visitors a vast array of neighbourhoods with their own distinct identities. As Sydney’s neighbourhoods gentrify and local small businesses are no longer able to survive on traditional main streets Sydney runs the very real risk of losing its mojo.
Down south in Melbourne, “the world’s most liveable city” does not shy away from marketing its local precincts. The City provides each business group with grants of up to $75,000 with two thirds ($50,000) available to market each precinct and one third ($25,000) available for administrative support to deliver achievable outcomes. Melbourne does not require its local business groups to hold business networking type functions.
By comparison the City of Sydney is larger than Melbourne with more people and more businesses located in our city limits. And yet the City of Sydney proposes to spend less than half as much than our southern cousins championing each of the City’s village precincts.
In addition to a new proposal to cut funds to the existing village support program, the City is no longer contributing to several popular community events that have been mounted by local business groups to market their areas.
When Clover Moore first took office, the City prided itself on funding local community events. Back in March 2005, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, “In a letter the council’s manager of cultural and community affairs, Ann Hoban, said: ‘The focus of events produced by the new council was shifted towards events that reflect its City of Villages concept and enable wider community participation.’”
A dozen years later, in April of this year the City Hub reported that the City refused to provide funds to the Potts Point Partnership to produce the popular Kings Cross Festival which attracted 25,000 people to its village precinct in 2014.
In response to that cut, local resident, artist and businessman Warren Fahey posted a comment on our website stating: “It is a bad decision by the City of Sydney. The 2011 post code precincts are one of the most diverse in Australia, and the highest concentration of people living in apartment dwellings. Festivals using open space are vital to this community’s well-being. The weekly Saturday and Sunday markets have proven locals will support community initiatives and the City using the lame excuse that the Potts Point Partnership does not have the resources to stage another festival is wrong. It is usual for such organisations to outsource talent.”
“I should know, I was producer of the main free events at the hugely successful 2014 festival including the all-day stage in Fitzroy Gardens, the all-day children’s festival in Hargrave Reserve, the Beare Park Picnic and the Writer’s program. I was outsourced and also worked for considerably less than my normal fee — because it was my local event. There are many more like me ready, willing and able to work with a City of Sydney funded festival.”
This month the Glebe Chamber of Commerce also announced it will not hold the Glebe Street Fair in November. After 30 years the local business group will not produce the popular event because the City refuses to provide adequate funding for the fair which draws more than 100,000 people to Glebe’s main street annually.
Invariably Council bureaucrats will argue that they will be able to deliver more efficient outcomes without the messy involvement of the local community. And yet Council run events are far more expensive to produce without the volunteer participation of the local community and the cash and in-kind contributions made by local businesses.
When government bodies manage events and mount marketing campaigns the result is inevitably a one size fits all corporate campaign. The City’s Christmas decorations are a case in point: From hipster Newtown in the west to genteel Paddington in the east, identical shopping centre style banners and homogenised baubles are rolled out on every City main street across Sydney.
The government is good at spending big money on large scale events and glitzy ad campaigns such as New Year’s Eve, Good Food Month, Fashion Week, Vivid and the like — with one overall brand applied from on high across the whole of the City. But lavishly paid bureaucrats and an army of expensive outside consultants are not suited to develop an authentic local village brand identity. Local businesses need to champion their own quirky, local village precincts.
Ironically, the current Council was elected with the endorsement of local businesses, which were required to vote in last year’s Council elections. Since businesses pay more than 80% of the rates in the City of Sydney, their continued success is in Town Hall’s own financial and political interest.
Under current state law, the CEO of the City of Sydney is required to ensure that all businesses in the City of Sydney are enrolled to vote in the next local elections in three years-time. It will be interesting to see how local businesses respond if Council slashes funds for local business precincts at this month’s meeting.
Despite popular misconceptions, a number of the City’s local small business groups have been headed by ardent supporters of Clover Moore. During last year’s Council elections, the Lord Mayor resisted calls for the introduction of a Business Improvement District model for the City on the basis that many City business groups have been happy with the existing Village Grant system (slashing the program was never foreshadowed).
Under the Business Improvement District system (which is used in Newtown, Marrickville, Newcastle, New York and London as well as globally) local businesses pay a levy for marketing just as tenants in shopping centres do. The argument in favour of a levy is that politicians can never divert funds from local marketing campaigns to pay for other programs. The argument against the model was that the City generously provided for its village precincts: until now.
Cities are dynamic, diverse, thriving hubs of apparent chaos designed to look after their inhabitants. Nobody knew this better than Jane Jacobs, the American journalist and activist, who rallied locals in the 1960s to defend Greenwich Village in New York against the threat of developers and roadways in the name of progress. Jacob’s most famous book was titled “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” A modern day rewrite could be titled “The Death and Life of the City of Villages.”
This month, the Sydney Film Festival screened “Citizen Jane”, a documentary about her amazing life. Both sessions sold out. Jacobs argued that cities rely on the interaction of residents, small business owners, and people on the street all of whom are invested in ensuring that they live in a safe, exciting and accepting city. Jacobs was among the first to term that investment “social capital”.
Local small businesses have invested abundant amounts of social capital into our village precincts to ensure that we live in an exciting, unique and dynamic city. Many of us spend money in their shops; work in their businesses and love their vibe. Some of us own our own businesses or hope to one day. From London to Los Angeles, from New York to Melbourne, the world’s best cities invest in their local precincts to ensure that their main streets have a diverse range of local businesses and that each of their urban villages is utterly unique. We should expect no less of Sydney.