How Renew Australia is turning abandoned shops into rent-free workspaces for local creatives


Artist Carol Baroso has been involved in the Renew Wollongong project. Source: supplied.

A devastating bushfire season followed by COVID-19 has led to the closure of numerous shops and shop-fronts across the country. At the same time, there has been a growing movement to support local businesses and community projects.

One organisation that is bridging this gap is Renew Australia, which provides local creatives and community projects with rent-free accommodation in otherwise vacant shops, office spaces and public buildings.

The goal is to aid the economic development and vibrancy of a local area, and help to support the creative industries across Australia.

According to Renew Australia national manager Angela Simons, it is difficult to forecast what our main streets will look like as we enter the new normal mode of living, but with shop vacancy rates now in the double digits in Victoria, and national residential rental vacancy rates rising even before COVID-19 hit, Simons says Renew Australia is receiving a significant number of enquiries from community projects.

Speaking to SmartCompany, Simons says, in her local community, residents are not wanting to travel far, and are rediscovering shops and projects that are within arms reach.

“It’s difficult to forecast what main streets will look like after this, but if we can maintain engagement with local spaces and communities as we emerge from isolation, there could be a positive impact [particularly] in regional areas,” she says.

“Even before COVID-19, regional and small towns were adversely impacted by the bushfires, and there were reduced travel numbers to these regions due to the length and time of that season,” she tells SmartCompany.

“Now, businesses and main streets are facing a period of uncertainty, and Australia isn’t standing alone in terms of [retail] vacancies.”

According to Simons, the Renew Australia arrangements ⁠— which operate on a 30-day rolling license agreement, with for-lease or for-sale signs staying up when applicable ⁠— benefit property owners, as the participants look after the property and pay utility bills, as well as the community, which sees previously vacant spaces come to life.

Potential participants include traditional artists, as well as anyone who makes or creates their own IP or wares.

“We [provide] a greater reason for somebody to stroll down their local street … and, if someone is lucky enough to occupy one of our spaces, it’s done with the understanding that they aren’t competing with businesses in the area who are paying rent,” she says.

“We bring vibrancy through activation … and aim to provide artists and creatives with a visible space to trial ideas with minimal overheads.”


An exhibition from Renew Wollongong. Source: supplied.

Driving interest in areas that have been dismissed and under-utilised

Founded by author, former ABC presenter and Contemporary Arts Precincts chief executive Marcus Westbury in 2013, Renew Australia sprung from another initiative, Renew Newcastle.

The original project ⁠— which aimed to revitalise the Newcastle area following the global financial crisis in 2008 ⁠— activated 82 properties through 264 participants, with a 2017 study from the Centre of Full Employment and Equity showing it had a 14:1 return on investment.

Now, Renew Australia, which is run by six board members and five staff members, has activated heritage-listed buildings including Jacks Magazine, and is currently revitalising spaces in Geelong, Wollongong, Maitland and far west New South Wales.

Simons says the projects have received funding from a variety of partners including local councils, chambers of commerce and philanthropists. Renew Australia also offers private consulting to diversify organisations’ revenue stream, and additional services including insurance and scoping studies.

“We don’t just work with councils and community groups. We also offer services through property developers and real estate agents who are interested in reinvigorating the community,” she says.

“One such example was ‘Revolution Marrickville’, where we worked with a property developer to fill vacant retail spaces underneath the property they were completing and selling. It gave our participants a free space while they found tenants, and created vibrancy during a period of change.”

“Why can’t we have exhibition spaces dotted among nail salons and real estate agents?”

According to Simons, many creatives have been assisted by the government’s COVID-19 stimulus measures — including the JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs — but many have also missed out on the safety net of government support.

Like the situation facing local traders, she says it’s difficult to determine the long-term effects COVID-19 will have on those in the creative sector, and whether they will be able to receive the same level of arts funding and support in the future.

However, she says Renew Australia’s pipeline projects will continue to provide spaces that allow the community to reconnect with creative ideas.

“I love to see anchor tenants like banks and post offices on main streets, but what else can we have on [them]? Why can’t we have community groups and exhibition spaces dotted among nail salons and real estate agents?

“We have new affiliates coming on board over the next few weeks, projects going in Geelong and Wollongong, and we welcome enquiries from communities across Australia on how we can help activate local spaces,” she adds.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.


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