Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Evaluating Notre Dame's place in Freo (Part I)

My wife/editor told me that my next two posts were so dry (actually, she used a more colourful phrase that I won't repeat here), that I should share a piece of embarrassing personal information at the end as a kind of reward to anyone who finishes it still conscious. So if you make it to the end, there's a treat waiting. (No cheating.)

A couple of months ago now, Council adopted a new Memorandum of Understanding with Notre Dame University. Now that the dust has settled, I thought I'd evaluate the document, and Notre Dame's place in Freo.

Freo is not unique in having a university or college in its city centre, and that brings with it a set of inherent benefits and costs. The trick, of course, is to maximise the benefits and to mitigate, as best as possible, the costs.

I believe it's important to keep in mind that some of the most pleasant and liveable towns around the world are those with a university in their limits. Making the partnership work is clearly not impossible, or even all that difficult.

What is Freo currently gaining from Notre Dame?

1. Economic development

Notre Dame contributes significantly to Freo's economy. It is one Freo's largest employers and most consistent and biggest attractors. All those employees and students provide a solid base for sustaining local businesses in Freo's city centre. And if there was more affordable accomodation for students available in the city centre, the benefits would probably increase even more.

It would be great if somebody had managed to quantify the contribution that Notre Dame makes to Freo's local economy, but to date there are no figures available.

2. Parking revenue (either from paid parking or parking fines)

Again, there are no exact figures, but I'd imagine that during semester all those students also help to fill the City's coffers.

3. Heritage restoration plus tourism

Walking around the West End wouldn't be quite so enjoyable without the awesome heritage buildings, many of which have been restored by Notre Dame. These beautifully restored buildings represent a long-term benefit to all of Freo and attract tourists to the West End in droves.

During my research, I wondered out loud if private developers would have delivered the same outcome? I turned around to hear the sounds of my wife choking on her tofu. She clearly didn't think so and neither do I.

Now that I've covered what we're gaining, its time to think about what we're trading by having Notre Dame?

What is Freo currently trading by having Notre Dame?

1. Less revenue from rates

As a not-for-profit organisation, it is enshrined in legislation that Notre Dame, like other universities, does not pay rates. This also applies to the land occupied by Fremantle Port, Fremantle Hospital, St Patrick's Primary School, CBC Fremantle and other not-for-profit organisations littered around Freo's city centre.

It dawned on me that Freo's traditional role as Perth's second city has meant that it has naturally hosted important institutions. Notre Dame's presence in the West End reinforces Freo's second city tradition, but it also exacerbates the problem of sacrificing rateable land.

The problem is that local ratepayers (I'll get to taxpayers in my next post) are effectively subsidising, in part, the presence of these organisations.

2. The West End

The West End is becoming dominated by a single use. The issues of inactive ground floor frontages and the closure of many of the West End pubs have been well documented. Suffice to say the lack of diversity, especially in night time activities, subtracts from the precinct's vibrancy.

A lesson that can be learnt from this experiment is that in such a small area as the West End, the implications of allowing one single dominant land use can be severe. This lesson is something to keep in mind when it comes to thinking about the much ballyhooed Arthurs Head Art Precinct.

3. Parking bays

Local retailers will feel a tad aggrieved that students (and maybe Notre Dame employees) tend to take up a lot of parking bays. Having said that, most parking in the West End is managed so that people do not get to hog a bay for 3, 4, or 5 plus hours without paying for that option.


The interesting thing about Freo's town-gown trade-off is that you can't get the benefits of economic development that Notre Dame brings without acknowledging that there will be less revenue from rates. For me, the key relates to extracting maximum value. Ensuring that the benefits outweigh the costs.

I think I'll leave it at this point and give Freo Doctor Blog readers a breather. I'll be back tomorrow with a post that focuses on what we can expect from Notre Dame and my assessment of how the MOU stacks up.

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