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The Neon Grid with Michael Rodrigues

In The Neon Grid podcast, NSW’s first 24-Hour Economy Commissioner, Michael Rodrigues explores what it means to build a 24-hour economy through a series of interviews with the best and brightest across industry, local council and the NSW Government.

Episode 4. Selina Short

Selina Short is an EY Partner and its Oceania Market Segment Leader – Built Environment & Resources.

Transcript

[music]

Selina: Before COVID hit, one teeny-tiny 2.8 square kilometre area drove 9.4% Australia's GDP. We're talking around $140 billion of national GDP being generated from this tiny little place we call the central business district. This is an economic powerhouse that was a key part of what was driving our nation. So, that is why we should care. We need to care from a human-centred perspective, but there is this really big economic imperative around why the CBD is so important and why we had to engage in that conversation.

[Neon Grid theme]

Michael: Welcome to The Neon Grid. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. Like CBDs across the world, COVID has posed some fundamental challenges to Sydney. We'll just debate and creative ideation between major stakeholders through forums like the CBD summits that's helped to support businesses over the last few years. Many of the initiatives have also shaped the future of our city for the better. Big alfresco dining, cycleways, the use of technology in-venue to name a few. As we shift gears into a post-pandemic mindset, what do  Sydneysiders actually want from their city and what are the barriers in the way of experiencing that? Rather than leave it to guesswork, our Office commissioned some independent research to answer those questions by consulting over 3,000 Sydneysiders. We asked Ernst & Young to be forensic in their analysis and forthright in their recommendations. There are a lot of angles to this. Changes in working habits, new transport patterns, rapidly shifting consumer preferences, cost of living pressures, and of course, rents. 

The built environment has plenty to do with the last of these, but also makes such an impact on the experience we have in our neighbourhoods and the city we love. Joining me around the watercooler today, so to speak, is cities expert, Selina Short. Boss of Real Estate and Construction for EY. She has a little research report entitled "FLICKING THE SWITCH," which was published in late April. Google "EY FLICKING THE SWITCH" and you will find it. In this podcast, we will draw on Selina's expertise, EY's global perspective, tease out some of the findings of the report. I hope you find it useful.

Welcome, Selina Short, to The Neon Grid Podcast.

Selina: Excited. Thanks for having me.

Michael: You are many things, but according to this well-written research document in front of me, you are EY’s Oceania built environment and resources market segment leader. There's more besides but what is that? I suppose, by way of introduction a bit like this concept of cities, and city's expertise, and so forth. I had no idea about until I found myself in the business of trying to get cities going again. So, you've been drawn in and, I guess, one of the experts really in Sydney, at least on cities, but how did you get into that?

Selina: How did I get into cities? I'd say it's from being a human who is definitely more of a city-phile than a country, regional kind of person. But in terms of the broader role, what does market segment leader mean for the built environment resources, the day job is really broad. At EY, we've brought together these mega segments of sectors that we think have things in common and a lot of things that aren't in common. So, I look after real estate and construction, power and utilities, oil and gas, mining and metals. We brought together all of these capital-intensive physical asset businesses. Don't ask me any questions on mining and metals! It's not my bag, but the teams look after that and sort of that rolls up to me on the exec in terms of looking at that portfolio from EY's point of view. Interestingly, there's actually quite a bit of crossover between a construction site and a mining site. There's really good stuff that we can learn from that kind of confluence and convergence of industries. 

But my background is in real estate and construction. For me, really more so on the real estate side than the construction side. A lot of the work that I've done has been around offices traditionally as a real estate asset class. I've always though been very focused whenever we're talking about the built environment, which I think is incredible, but very much the human-centred part of the built environment, which meant that, if I wind back six, seven years ago, usually used to be the crazy person in the room when you're talking to people in real estate saying, "But what about the humans? What about the customer?" And then always gets questions like, "Who do you mean? The customer, the shareholders. No, no, the person that comes to your building." And then you fast forward now, and that's changed fairly significantly. I've always been a complete city lover and I think the last two years has just taught us so much about cities and the appetite for people to want to engage constructively around that has just shifted, which has been critical. 

Michael: Yeah. I wonder whether our paths would have crossed if there wasn't a pandemic? 

Selina: Good question. 

Michael: Because we came into contact when I met you after you'd done some research work for the Property Council-

Selina: Yes.

Michael: -which explored, I guess, what you would think about the city in the post-pandemic age. Do you want to just outline a little bit about that and then explain how we came to work together on a report you recently launched?

Selina: Yeah. Look, it is a really interesting question, "Could we have met?", and I would automatically go, "Yeah, of course, we would have?" Actually, would we have, because the real estate sector was so focused on the asset, so the building in the environment? For sure, before COVID, the sector was starting to think about customer, and customer journeys, and user experience, and those things were starting to emerge. But they're like a bonus, a nice to have and the fluffy stuff that you put around that the real work, which was the building, and yields, and your cap rates, and all that stuff that's really important to make an asset work. 

When COVID came, one of the things that initiated that work where you and I came into contact was a discussion with the Property Council and a number of the players to say, "Hey, I know we all wish we could turn that clock back and it was 2019 again, and we'd never heard of this thing called COVID. But that is not going to happen, and we've got to embrace the change, and we've got to actually think differently." If you're an owner of a whole lot of assets, and offices, and shopping centres, your life got fundamentally blown up. It was a really interesting point in time to say, "Let's not focus on what have we got to do to take it back to 2019. Let's accept that genie's out of the bottle. Let's think about how we could make this better. What's got to change, what's got to be different?" And that was the genesis of that report, which was how you and I met. It's been really interesting and how much the sector has taken a lot of really good thinking and work that was already being done, sometimes, a little bit on the periphery, and just that really coming into the mainstream of how those companies are thinking about what the future has to look like.

Selina: I guess the other side, and from our perspective of the work that I've done over the years, and now, in government's been really human centred in the sense of almost they don’t care about the built environment in a sense. To me, it's all about human and what's the barrier to them going out, essentially. I guess, most recently in a report entitled "FLICKING THE SWITCH, Research and insights to help Sydney CBD turn the lights turn on a new era,". We asked you to think about this in a bit more detail around, with the CBD of Sydney in particular, traditionally being an area where people go to work, and then potentially go out afterwards, what happens if you take away the first part of that. If you're no longer going to work, why would you come back into the city? I guess, for many of us, we've all been really focused on the CBDs. It's not just the Sydney discussions, it's a global discussion, but maybe you can outline why CBDs are important, in particular, Sydney CBD matters.

Selina: Look, it really does matter and there's been much conversation and debate about this. But if you just look at it from a simple like, "Why do we care so much about this?". If you take Sydney as the example, before COVID hit, one teeny-tiny 2.8 square kilometre area drove 9.4% of Australia's GDP. So, we're talking around $140 billion of national GDP being generated from this tiny little place we call the central business district. That's really, really significant. We can have all of these big overarching conversations, but this is an economic powerhouse that was a key part of what was driving our nation. So, that is why we should care. 

We need to care from a human-centred perspective, but there is this really big economic imperative around why the CBD is so important and why we had to engage in that conversation. As you allude to, this isn't a Sydney thing either. It is global, it is a phenomenon that every city around the world is facing into, but they're all a little different as well. That's why I think that FLICKING THE SWITCH report has been super interesting, because we've gone out and talked to or listened to 3,000 different Sydneysiders to get their views around what we need to do to restart this economic engine. But how we do that in a really different way, how we take on board what people want and think about that strategically.

Michael: And from our perspective, and I think we share this, there was quite a period of-- I described it as a dartboard and people just throwing things at it, going, "Okay, what about this, what about that?" over the course of the pandemic, which is understandable, both in industry and in government as we wrestled with this major upheaval. But now that the pandemic is-- we're closer to the end than the beginning, let's just work with that assumption. Fingers crossed. But we recently had you speak at an event, CBDs Revitalisation Summit, and I could hear the room collectively draw air when you threw up a slide, which talked about global trends really around return or reengagement with activities. I think I'm right in summarising most things kind of return to games, NBA games, for example, US, F&B trending back towards 80, 90 odd percent, but there was one bit that was notable and what was that?

Selina: It was people returning to the office. The slides you're alluding to was looking at New York and you close your eyes and think of a quintessential global city, and four out of five people would probably say, "New York," if you did a quick straw poll. That data point was on New York. Everything's back except offices. As you say, NBA games, public transport, restaurants, but offices are around circa 40%, whereas everything else is back at that 90% mark and you go, "Hmm, this is interesting." For me, it really does symbolise that view that we've dislocated that “I come to the CBD Monday to Friday, 9 to 5”. That nexus has been fundamentally broken and that is a big shift from how our cities have operated. 

Now, again, if you look at Sydney, by comparison, the latest stats to come out of the Property Council we’re at about the 40% mark and I think given some of the timings of Omicron and all those other fun things, I think we're going to see it lift beyond 40% and get quite a bit beyond 40% in Sydney, and I think we've got different dynamics to somewhere like a New York. But I do think expecting it to go back to 2019 and have people work Monday to Friday-- We know that to be true from the research both that CBD report we did for the Property Council, which talked about how you create not central business districts, but central experience districts and from the work we've done for Investment New South Wales on FLICKING THE SWITCH, we know it's changed.

If you look at what people are telling us and we're talking, we've surveyed 3,000 papers, we've run focus groups, we've spoken to all these big thinkers around the globe. What we've been told is that 70% of CBD workers want flexible working as the norm. 3.3 days was the average preference to come into the office when you average it out. And really interestingly, that was great. That was all our research and it confirms a lot of what we're seeing, feeling, hearing. But the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development just a couple of weeks ago released findings from a work-from-home study they'd done and that was 32,000 people in 25 countries, and they asked the flip question on that 3.3 days in the office stat that we have been talking about. And their results said, 1.7 was the amount of days people wanted to work at home. This perfect flip mirror image stat-- 

You know those freakonomics moments, when you're like, "Oh, my gosh, did they read our report?" But anyway, it was pretty cool, just to see the flip of that stat. So, we know that people have bought into this hybrid work concept. Also, in that same report that they put out, two to three days a week working at home is equivalent to people of a 5% pay rise and 15% of employees said they would quit their job if they were asked to return to the office full time. When you break that down for Australia, it was 22% - second highest after the UK. So, that genie is not going back into the bottle, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 back in the office, it's just not-- We talk a bit about how we've got to flatten the working week curve. We've flattened the COVID curve. Now, it's the working week curve, because we've let it flow organically and we know Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday is where it's at. Thursday's the new Friday, Monday's dead, Friday's dead. If you're trying to sell coffees at the bottom of a building, what do you do? Does that even work as a business model? 

I think people have accepted that it's not going to go back to Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, but they're still trying to figure out what is the sustainable business model? How do we actually make this work practically, I think, is a big part of what people are grappling with at the moment. I think it's just trying to work out how we lift it probably a bit above the 40% mark and get it more to maybe towards 60% to 70%, but not taking it back to what it was.

Michael: Yeah. As I say, the point of this discussion, the report, all the work that you're doing, a lot of work that I'm doing, is to create an environment where you can have a debate, and then trial, test ideas. Could you talk a little bit about the great “work-from-home” experiment? I guess we were talking in the pregame about the currently with restrictions, I guess, easing-- they've eased, but just the return of other aspects of life, which have been closed off as busy parents with kids and school activities on weekends, and family commitments, there's an element of work from home routine that we've all embraced now. But in terms of the discussions around - productivity is one, company's attracting talent and retaining it - what's your view or insights really around--? Can it work from home in the way that we'd like to think it can, or is that a bit of a furphy?

Selina: Look, I think it served us so well. Holy moly, if we'd had to get through the last two years, 10 years ago, even 5 years ago, it would have just been a total all-out disaster. From the experience, if I look at it from EY, our productivity during those lockdown periods was incredibly high. We measure our productivity very effectively, so we're able to actually get a very good read on that and compare it to the same period in the prior year. But that is a really important consideration is what we're talking about short-term productivity. Am I cranking out more hours, cranking out more emails? And the answer to that is in a lot of cases, yeah, that ticked along fine.

The interesting bit is when you start to consider some of the longer-term impacts of that and it's really interesting. Microsoft, some work trends index showed that looking at how we're all interacting in this new world, we are operating in clearer silos and in much smaller networks. As we've experienced, our worlds have shrunk. You speak to the people you need to speak to get the job done, but we're missing all of that incidental stuff. We know humans are hardwired to connect. There's a whole bunch of super interesting stuff that tells us that if we lose that human face-to-face, we will see productivity will suffer and we know that-- If you look at a stat like engagement, it is the main metric that organisations use to say, "How much do people like working here? How likely are they to stay?" We know that engagement links very closely to productivity, mental wellbeing. If I'm engaged, all these good things happen.

Interestingly, we know that-- You take, for example, Gallup has been doing work for a long period of time around engagement. And all people, but especially women, if you take women as an example, they are twice as likely to be engaged, if they cite having a close friend at work. I'm not saying you can't make friends virtually, but it's really hard to get connected to people in a culture if you've never stepped foot into the office or you've never met those folks face-to-face. EY did this, EY Empathy and Business Survey, which came out in 2021 and 37% of employees said they'd left an organisation because they felt they couldn't connect with their colleagues. So, it's harder to measure and grapple with, but we intuitively know it, that if there is this face-to-face contact, if we have that human centricity, we get all of this innovation, we get ideas, we feel more connected. 

And really interestingly, I saw a stat the other week saying 84% of people land their next job through a casual contact. How does all of that work? I think we're seeing the effects of that two-year adrenaline charge working from home. Yes, we can get through the short term, but I think we're now starting to see a lack of mentorship, coaching, all of those things that have fallen by the wayside. And interestingly, people are wanting to come back, but they want to come back for that really good stuff. They don't want to come back, and sit in the office, and just smash out seven hours of work, and not talk to another human, or not run into anyone that creates those moments of spark or enjoyment that can be done at home. But when we come into the office, let's make it worth the commute and worth getting out of our slippers for.

Michael: In terms of then-- I guess, we spent a bit of time identifying where the importance of CBDs, where there is a material change. Let's just accept that as-- The question then moves very quickly on to “what are you going to do about it”? 

Selina: Yep.

Michael: I'd like to think, Selina, given that you have such an entrepreneurial public servant in me helping with CBDs revitalisation that we do do better than 40%. There we go, plug for me. But I guess, there's any number of strategies and points of view really and I think that's where rather than the old dartboard and everyone having a go, we asked for a bit of insight. Do you want to outline a few key either findings, or views, anecdotes – What are the practical things one can do around CBD revitalisation?

Selina: There'd be a couple of things that I'd call out. One that I know is close to your heart, Mike, and he spoke about it last week which is, do we have the right voices at the table? When we look at the data from the report, I want to say push on the open door. Who is going to be the easiest people that we can get to reengage with the CBD, who wants to be there, who have a reason to be there? They are young folk, probably ageing myself, by calling them young folk.

Michael: [laughs] The young people.

Selina: The young people! I like to think that I can still roll with that from time to time. But the young folk, people who work in the CBD and those who are within a closer commuting distance. Now, that's not to say that we just focus on that group at the exclusion of others, at all. But let's push on some open doors. You particularly raised the point about young voices, where are they at the decision-making table as we come up with these strategies? And how much of the CBD is designed with those users in mind? Yet they're the ones in this survey that are saying, "Yeah, I'm keen. I love the city. I want to come back." How are we making it a place that makes it easy for them to come back? And that links to one of the really obvious things for that cohort, which again comes through really strongly in the report, is – it's too expensive. 

So, there's some things I think we could do around getting the right voices to the table, designing the offering to meet the needs of that cohort, and leaning on some of the issues, which we know is a sticking point. CBDs are a special occasion place, they're really expensive. How do we break that down? How do we think about it differently if we know that's the problem? We've got this problem, we've got a group saying, "I want to come," that seems like a really obvious place to start.

Michael: Are there CBDs elsewhere, either around the country or around the world that EY has experienced, yours personally, that you see are doing a good job of A, this discussion, B, the intentionality required by government and industry to really rethink it or are we on our “Pat Malone”? 

Selina: Look, I think most cities are leaning into this in some way, shape, or form. I actually think there is work to be done to connect that piece up. You see this playing out, and we can maybe touch on this in a sec, but within our own city, this whole running down your own lanes concept, but that's also happening globally. Every city is trying to solve for pretty much the same problem. They've all got their little nuances, and differences, and tweaks, but I think there needs to be a lot more learnings happening at a global level, and taking the good and the interesting. I think there's work to be done for us as the Sydney CBD. I think we're actually doing a pretty bloody good job, mainly because we got back to it so much earlier than the other cities. But then, we kept having these lockdowns after everyone else had left that well behind. I think we had a really good head start, lost our way-- Not lost our way, but then just got taken back to the start line a couple of times. But I do think there would be power in elevating the story of Sydney, because I think we've done some really cool stuff but also learning from other cities as well. 

And I do think one interesting observation from just some of the other city folk I'm speaking to around the world is the residential component and that's always a controversial topic. But we don't have a high residential component in the Sydney CBD versus other cities. Often when you go to those cities that you think are super cool cities like Paris, Berlin, they've got a lot of people that live in the city as well. So, there's less of that dependency just on the office work. I think that's a consideration for us. Do we want to be a city that actually encourages more residential? There's some really big picture questions, which are not easy solves, but I think we need to lean into as we consider what something different could look like on the other side of this as well. But I think your point is a good one, because I don't think there's enough of that happening at the moment.

Michael: Yeah. I guess as well, I don't know if anyone's else has gone in and tried to do a benchmarking exercise, which is really what this is. I guess the purpose of it, particularly, because of the high level of investment from government in reactivating or reimagining CBD is to hope that we're doing it from a sense of data as opposed to speculation over a period of time. We did talk a little bit about the report and many of its findings. Did you have a pet one that you were like, "Yeah." It was one which I-- [crosstalk] 

Selina: What was your pet? What was your-- Is there a little fluffy kitten in there somewhere? [chuckles] 

Michael: What I did think was interesting was, create a city camp program for school groups. Encourage schools and community groups to undertake city camp for children from suburban and regional areas, both in New South Wales and interstate, get to experience city life advocating and sharing these experiences with their friends and families. I thought that was pretty, "Oh yeah." I don't know. I feel that what I found was like, "Yeah, let's have a talk about that one." I thought that was pretty interesting.

Selina: Yeah. Look, I've really liked that one as well. Maybe it's because you and I both got young kids and- [crosstalk] 

Michael: Possibly..

Selina: -trying to look to get them off our hands at various points. I don't know. But it is those ideas though, I think, around how you create attachment to the city. And I go back to how we kicked off this podcast. I'm like, "Hey, why are you so into cities?" Because I remember as a little kid coming into the centre of Sydney, I remember going past the DJs (David Jones) Christmas windows at Christmas, and my grandma bringing me on the bus from Collaroy, where she lives and go into the food hall at David Jones. I remember coming in with my mum and my dad for a special annual thing to the Opera House. You've got these memories burned into your brain of this aspirational place that is super cool. I think we need to be able to create that for our own kids. But it still goes back to what we found in this report, which was one of the standouts for me. It is a special occasion place. And that's my experience of it as a child. 

When you start working in there more, and you get more in the run of the mill, how you use the CBD but for me, that was one of the key takeaways of the report. How do we break the special occasion association? Don't get rid of it. Keep it, because it's really important, and it is cool, and you've got Bennelong, and you've got these amazing restaurants, and these world-class experiences. I'm not saying get rid of that. But how can you come in with your kids, or bring in your ageing parents, or whatever it might be, and hit a noodle market-- We've seen some of that activation in The Rocks, but how do you make it inclusive and accessible, somewhere that you think, "Hey, what should we do? Saturday night, what'd you do? Should we just go into the city? Yeah, let’s go into the city.” That is the level of thought that's required. You get your kids and you jump on the train or maybe you pick up your mum on the way and you've literally got three generations on the train rolling into the city. There's nothing on at the Opera House, you're not going anywhere near the Opera House. But you're going in there because you know you'll have fun. It's not going to break the bank. You'll have a good time and I think that for me is the key takeaway, how do we make it more accessible, more inclusive.

Michael: Or, against one of the most spectacular backdrops on the planet as we-- [crosstalk] 

Selina: Absolutely. 

Michael: All right, Selina, we've been going for a while. There are a few things, but I've been speaking about rents and other things on other podcasts. So, we'll leave that one for another time. 

[laughter] 

Selina: I agree with you, I agree with you. Let's just quickly go there. We do need to look at the rental model around the CBD and look at how you create free, cheap rental options for creatives, thinkers that we know that creates interesting, exciting, delightful, and then you get more rent on the floors above. So, it's a bit of a no-brainer for me. We just need to work through the models. 

Michael: Yeah. And I think coming off the forumwe did the other day, I think that there is this idea of, "Okay, we've identified the problem. We've got some insights into solutions." But in terms of like, "Let's go find some specific examples of where we can create impact and showcase success," I think is probably where at least my head is. Happily, there's a few landlords who are I think like-minded in that, and connecting them with the creative community, and so on, all these types of concepts we understand. But it's execution ultimately, isn't it, that we want to see practical examples that I guess, hopefully, look to redefine the market. Is there anything else you want to throw in? Haven't we covered it, or--?

Selina: Look, as you know, I could talk for days and I think you want to probably get out of here at some point. But the two for me that we probably haven't touched on, one is this whole concept of the micro district, which goes back to this whole-- Everyone, I think, is coming at this with gusto and heaps of enthusiasm, lots of ideas around what we could do around the CBD. But one of my observations is people running down their own lanes, but they're all running to the same place. I think there would be so much power if those run lanes all serpentined around each other. Also with New South Wales Government, we've got this concept going around, how do we build a micro district, and you've done a great job and been involved on it with YCK, which is a phenomenal example of that. But how do we create a brand and something distinct and bring together all the important people and businesses that galvanise around this really small little area, and go, "Let's work together." What are you bringing to the table? We talked about in the panel last week, like practical-- what are you going to bring? 

We're talking about that around Wynyard Park. How do you have someone like a Brookfield who owns some of the really spectacular assets around that park? How do you bring the big employers, who are trying to get their people back to work around that park? How do you work with the F&B providers, how do you work with the small businesses in the retail, and how do you think about what could this place be, and then bring in local government and state government, and actually all work together? That for me is really critical. We showed the power of collaboration through COVID. We've now all gotten busy getting back to our own thing. We can't lose that collaboration magic. I think if we can collaborate around-- start small on these little micro districts, I think there's a heap in that that we could do. EY's also working on the Wynyard one to write this micro district playbook, which hopefully should be out in the not-too-distant future. So, we're not repeating stuff again in a variation of a theme. It's getting some efficiencies and some economies of scale in that. So, that is a big one for me. 

The other key thing, which I just feel I can't share views on anything without coming back to is also whilst COVID has been tough, yes, no one's going to argue with that, holy moly, it is nothing with what we've got coming around climate change. Cities are massive contributors to our carbon emissions, circa 40% built environments’ contribution to carbon emissions. So, you just can't have conversations around “what should the future of our cities be?” responsibly without also addressing this other problem. What I want to see, desperately, desperately want to see more of is co-benefits. How do we solve for this current problem? Let's get people back to the city and what does that look like along with, how do we do that in a way that also makes our cities greener, more sustainable? Because if we're not trying to solve for both of those problems simultaneously, we are missing a massive trick. Looking for those co-benefits-- 

We do a lot of work with MIT out of Boston and their real estate innovation lab, they've done amazing work on the benefit of trees and of green space. We know from the report that we did that people told us that 43% greenspace is a deterrent. If we know that actually, people like coming into the city more if it's greener. And guess what? It's actually also really great for the planet. And the work that MIT has done has shown that it actually also increases asset values, both from a sale and a rental point of view, no-brainer. Yet, I don't see the city filled with trees. If you sat down rationally and said to me, bam, bam, bam, you'd be like, "Okay, let's put in a heap of trees." There's some things I think we need to lean into. The trees are just one example, but we need to really lean into that. If you read the IPCC report a couple of weeks ago, it's sobering, we've got to.

Michael: Yeah, and how fast-- Using that example, time is ticking in terms of that and greening the city, genuinely greening the city, I assume, how quickly can it be done?

Selina: Theoretically, anything can be done quickly. COVID showed us that if something needs to happen and it needs to happen now, we can move mountains. Unfortunately, the challenge of this one is the slow burn and the politicisation of the topic has made it really, really challenging, which I think is a shame for our children or grandchildren, and us to be honest, it's going to hit our lifetimes. But I think with enough will, and I think what we saw during COVID, and my big fear was that everyone would go, "Oh, my God. Forget climate change, because this is all consuming." That wasn't what happened. We actually saw people double down and we saw particularly the corporates make really big net zero commitment. I feel we've actually got momentum now.

Again, the New South Wales Government has really moved things forward, and hugely commendable in the policies and the way things have moved forward from a New South Wales point of view. Great examples in SA (South Australia) around the renewables. So, we're starting to see some of this come to life. But around the city's agenda, I think there is more that we can do to weave some of this into the solutions that we're working on now around the revitalisation piece.

Michael: Oh, well, we'll look forward to having that discussion with you as we go about our work. Our paths cross in a serpentine manner often. So, thanks for joining me on The Neon Grid Podcast.

Selina: Thanks, Mike. It's always a pleasure.

Michael: Thanks for listening to The Neon Grid Podcast. I hope you enjoyed that episode. To get involved with our efforts to reimagine Sydney's 24-Hour Economy, sign up to The Neon Grid newsletter. You'll find that on the Investment New South Wales website, which is at investment.nsw.gov.au or hit the link in the show notes. You can also follow me, your host, Michael Rodrigues, on LinkedIn. And as always, carpe noctem.

Episode 3. Dylan Parker

Dylan Parker is the Mayor of Randwick City Council.

Episode details

At just 30 years old, Dylan Parker is the Mayor of Randwick City Council and giving a new perspective to where things are heading.

We discuss the need for more representation of young people in government and reimagining Randwick’s economy due to changes brought on by the pandemic.

What you will learn in this episode? The positive impacts an accurate representation of constituency in government can have. 

How people's shopping, dining and local life has changed due to the pandemic and how Randwick City Council is reimagining their economy to capitalise on these changes.  

For more on Randwick City Council:

To keep up to date with The Neon Grid:

Find and connect with Dylan here:

Produced by Pod Paste, in Sydney Australia.

 

Transcript

What does the future of Randwick's economy look like?

Dylan: One of the things we've seen is that practices and how people shop have changed. It's not just during the day in the middle of the week. People are ordering from home, but they're also working slightly different hours and they want to go out and shop. We've got to figure out ways to maintain some form of physical retail presence, and some of the way we do that is by actually expanding the hours which they operate as well. So, there's a big chunk there of work to do. But I think it's a really exciting kind of period of time where we can just look at everything again with fresh eyes and go, "Well, do we need to do it as we did in the past?"

[The Neon Grid intro] Michael: Welcome to The Neon Grid. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. Much of my time in government has been spent helping the sector navigate the unruly trading conditions created by COVID. There's been a real and very necessary emphasis on short-term government relief. But the 24-Hour Economy Strategy I've been asked to deliver is about a long-term vision for Sydney. Yes, that includes the city goers of today, but what about the going-out audiences of the future? What will they want to do? What will excite them? And how do we shape the environment to permit full engagement by those who might not necessarily be represented at industry and government events? Let's face it, sitting around council meetings or participating in roundtables tends to be dominated by other demographics. Bucking the trend, is today's guest Councillor Dylan Parker. Dylan joined Randwick Council five years ago and in December, he was elected mayor, aged just 30. Amazing.

[00:01:24] Councillor Parker has just announced a series of proposals, aiming to transform his Eastern Sydney Council area into a new hub for all the stuff we love. Food, drink, arts, culture and nightlife. All that, 26 kilometres of pristine coastline and a world-class uni to boot. I want to hear about Dylan's plan to make this happen, in a way that excites Sydneysiders about sometimes underappreciated part of this great city. I also want to pick his brain on how millennials and Gen Z can play a more active role in civic life. And in so doing, help us usher forward a new generation of going-out experiences and behaviours.

[music]

Michael: [00:02:07] Welcome, Councillor Parker or Mayor Parker, I'm going to refer to you all the way through this interview, to The Neon Grid podcast. It's the first one of 2022. And it's a pleasure to have you as our guest today.

Dylan: [00:02:18] Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here. Exciting topic.

Michael: [00:02:21] Yeah. We prompted to leap at the opportunity to interview you, because recently you were talking about, I guess, plans for nightlife or going out in your city council area. But I think for some context, council elections were last December, if I'm right, and they'd been delayed and pandemic for all of us has been challenging. So, you're in for a term now, and I think it's a bit of a shorter term if I'm right, because council elections will be two and a half years away if I've got that correct.
Dylan: [00:02:48] Yeah. September 2024.

Michael: [00:02:51] Before we get into the nitty gritty of vision or thinking around Randwick, I guess I just want to know a little bit about the man. What's excited you particularly around this agenda, as in your personal background, the way you live your life, or what's motivated you around this particular issue?

Dylan: [00:03:07] Thank you firstly, just for having me on. When we talk about this topic, I was having a think on the way in here as to what brought me to all things, 24-hour economy and nightlife, but more generally arts and culture. To be honest, it's via osmosis through my family background. I've got a
stepfather who is a longtime actor. My stepmother is an artist and a painter. My sister is a ceramicist. I'm a failed childhood saxophonist trying to have a go on the sax as well. So, look, I think, to some extent, it's definitely in the blood.

[00:03:45] When I got elected to council, I was 25. I looked around, it's a horseshoe at Randwick. One of the observations, no aspersions on my colleagues, but just a statement of fact, was that I was a good 20 to 25 years younger than all of my colleagues, which gave me a rather different perspective, but also life experiences. It brought me here because someone who's 25 elected to council loves the bit of Sydney which I represent, but went, "Hmm, okay, what are we missing?" It's something which is rather important to young people, which is nightlife and I looked at that and I said, "Look, there's space for growth here. Let's see what we can do."

Michael: [00:04:26] It's interesting insight that around, I guess, your family background potentially.
Would you see yourself as a bit of a black sheep and going into-- or does your family see you as a
black sheep going into politics? Or, is that an extension of that artist within?

Dylan: [00:04:42] Oh, look, it's definitely a rebellion in some way. A little bit about my family, my dad
was a small business involved in art supplies, but before he got into that, he was also an environmental campaigner, so it is in the family in that regard but on the brainy side. My mother could only be
described as a small city conservative. Some background about me, I'm half black American, and I
reckon she was probably the only black American to have voted for George Bush in 2004.

Michael: [00:05:18] [chuckles]

Dylan: [00:05:18] We get all sides in the family. But, for me, my childhood rebellion was definitely Labor and progressive politics there. Actually, getting involved in elected life is very, very different. What drew me there was me going, "Well, look, I have a lot of views. I really care about community service. But rather than griping in the sidelines, roll up the sleeves and see what I can do." It's got its challenges. I'm not going to say that it's all roses and super exciting all of the time. Sometimes, it's being on the receiving end of some grumpy people. But that's life, and that's really elected life as well.

Michael: [00:05:53] Coming into my role, I've got that Roosevelt quote, which talks about being in the stands, or the gladiator on the field, and rolling up his sleeves, and joining the fray sets all of us to some level of criticism at times. But once you're in it, you got to have respect for those who've gone before.

But I want to say it's just upon the age discussion for a bit. I recall one of my first entries into, I guess, advocacy was being invited to speak to a committee for a Sydney event. And I think I was aged 40 at the time, and I said to the room, I said, "The problem with this discussion is, I think I'm the youngest person in it, and we're trying to make decisions for a generation or two away." I'm keen to go back to that observation that you've had around the discussion that you identified at age 25 and now a little bit older in a position, I think, have some influence, particularly in in your local area. Do you see that there's a demographic shift in your electorate maybe or across Sydney, and that there's an underrepresentation the youth of today or the next generation at all? Any advice for people that might be looking to try and make an impact or roll up their sleeves, because sometimes it's a bit of a opaque to know how to get involved, I think.

Dylan: [00:07:19] Yeah, totally. Two points, the first one, and I think you really hit the nail on the head. 40, in a room full of individuals, and you may be the youngest one there. What's interesting, I'm no longer the youngest mayor in New South Wales. I've been pipped by, from my understanding the mayor of Ryde, but I was for a couple of months. I'm 30, and I look at that, and I go-- It's actually not surprising in my view that I'm a 30-year-old mayor. I think it's more surprising that there aren't more 30-year-olds.

The reason why I think it's quite surprising is you look at it, and you have young people who are
passionate, who are active out in the community, who are fighting for issues, which will impact them, and they're not necessarily represented in elected office. I think there are some structural reasons as to why that is, but it's also a matter of ambition.

[00:08:04] I look at it and what really drew me is, as was mentioned is decisions are happening over there, which impact me, I want to have some say on that. For anyone who is passionate about politics, passionate about what their community looks like, the world which they are going to inherit, then really it pays to actually be there at the table. And bringing it home to all things after dark at a council level, it was-- when I got elected, it was like parks and rec. We were talking about open spaces, development applications, playgrounds, these are all very important, valuable things, but it isn't the whole portrait. And councils, state parliaments, federal parliament, they all make decisions, which impact the whole range of people in different walks of life. You need to actually have a diversity of representation there.

[00:09:04] If you wanted some advice from me if you're a young person having a listen to this going on, "Look, I could have a shot at this," the advice I would have is you actually do bring life experience and you do bring perspectives, which are not necessarily being represented. It was definitely a nagging doubt in my mind going, "Well, what would I know, as compared to all of the other candidates or all the other more senior staff who I'm engaging with?" Part of it is perspective. You will bring a different set of life experiences to other generations. I was quipping earlier before our recording saying I'm part of the lockout generation, where decisions made by 50-year-olds and 60-year-olds completely overnight changed the face of Sydney as we enjoyed it, and as we experienced it, and we didn't really have any input on that. I look at that, and I go, "Well, look, politics is complicated. It's hard. But you got to have somebody who represents a constituency. And there's no reason why it can't be a young person, especially if your voters will agree with you." And that tended to be my experience. People said, "God, it's really nice having a fresh perspective here, and a new set of eyes," because people get into bad habits as well.

Michael: [00:10:25] I think that happens, doesn't it? Speaking of bad habits, one thing that I give some time thinking to in my role is the impact of the pandemic on different demographics. If you look at the going-out landscape where those with cash, the degree of access, those without don't have the same degree of access, and then you're imposing the pandemic on it, you end up starting to think about, "Well, who's the city for and who's able to enjoy it?" I guess looking at your own area, if we talk about Randwick, in particular, for a time recently, as I mentioned the beginning of the interview, you talked about a new vision for nightlife or going out in Randwick, and just sort of maybe, in your own words, explain, like what you see. We've touched on it in terms of where it was, but what do you sort of see? You've been around this for a while. I think you set up advisory, nightlife advisory group or chaired at some time back. So, it's not a new idea, in a sense, you've been at it but now you're in a position and you're making some commitment. Just want to articulate what you can see ahead of you?

Dylan: [00:11:30] Totally. One of the things I would say in terms of where I'd like to see us go is first to
get an idea, one, where we were and then where we are, and then where I think it'd be a great idea for us to be heading. Look, when I got elected, it was very much a business-as-usual counsel, which we understood. I set up a nighttime advisory committee, but the main thing which I thought was really important around that is it wasn't about me as an elected official, for that matter planners or bureaucrats driving the agenda, but it was actually getting some people who lived, worked in the industry, who knew all things 24-hour economy well, and to give us the feedback. What was really quite interesting is the committee just had a life of its own.

[00:12:13] I sat there, opened the meeting, and then off it went, because people were passionate about it. It was their bread and butter. There were small business owners, they're small bar owners. There were individuals from the Live Music Office. There was the university. There was Fringe Festival. It became an ongoing brainstorming session as to ways where we can improve our part of Sydney. It really took a life of its own. In some ways, it was a bit of a group therapy session of people venting their frustrations, but also their hopes and their aspirations for the city. But I also think that's really important, because it gives us an idea of going, "Well, what's the impossible that we can imagine? And then, how do we chart half the way there?" or whatever. So, that's how it gets rolling. There was a fantastic study, which came out of it with far too many actions to go through here. And then, council started chipping away very slowly at it over time. Boring, bureaucratic speak, but very important.

[00:13:11] Bringing it to the pandemic, I think it is a really interesting time to be re-looking at everything with fresh eyes, because as you mentioned, almost how we do everything has changed. Travel patterns have changed. People used to get on the bus in the morning, stay in the CBD for work, and then stay and drink after dark now. People are local, but they still want to go out, they still want to enjoy their backyard and they're finding there isn't that much there. Add on the complications of struggles for staff.

It is an interesting set of circumstances. But challenges are also in some ways an opportunity for a bit of a reset. I look at it and I go, "Everyone's had their world turned upside down. We can figure out, going, 'All right, well, we've had two years doing things differently. Do we revert back to business as usual? Or, do we keep the good bits which we like and build on some of the others?'"

[00:14:11] One of the great things which we've really tried and rolled out is shared streets, for example.

Coogee Bay Road, the iconic Coogee. There was a trial for several months. Taking back some of the
street for expanded outdoor dining. Ostensibly, it was under the safety measures for COVID. But what we also found is it was more enjoyable street space during the day, but also at night. And here is an area of Sydney that has been dominated by an anchor institution from nightlife which is the Coogee Bay Hotel for its good publicity and its bad publicity. But actually, by expanding the street, you had quite a diverse nighttime ecosystem that popped up. There was live music which was operating down there. The businesses quite liked it. And it was an interesting experiment, which we were able to do because of COVID.

[00:15:12] And would I be able to say, would we have taken a significant chunk of the street under
business as usual? I'm not sure about that. But it's a good opportunity there. What I'd like to see is us to keep building on it. Things like all of the expanded outdoor dining, which happens at day and night, keep it. It seems to work, it's worked for the last two years, we can do that. Another thing, more retail trading, especially later into the night. One of the things we've seen is that practices and how people shop have changed. It's not just during the day, in the middle of the week. People are ordering from home, but they're also working slightly different hours, and they want to go out and shop. We've got to figure out ways to maintain some form of physical retail presence. And some of the way we do that is by actually expanding the hours which they operate as well. So, there's a big chunk there of work to do but I think it's a really exciting period of time where we can just look at everything again with fresh eyes and go, "Well, do we need to do it as we did in the past?"

Michael: [00:16:17] Just on the big chunk of work, and that things like Alfresco and extension of retail hours, they're the good initiatives. What we're thinking is, if it's working, how do we make it more permanent at the state level with the levers that we have. But for our listeners, and people from industry listening to this, in terms of the big tasks, in terms of council instruments, for example, Parramatta Council's just announced and put out for exhibition its Late Night Trading Development Control Plan. There's no doubt there's a nighttime economy strategy. There's these pieces of kit that you need, is that what you mean with the big tasks? What are they in your context for Randwick? What things do you need to get done in the next three years?

Dylan: [00:17:05] Well, to give you an idea, just tonight, we're doing one big chunk of our strategy
piece, and that is our Economic Development Strategy. We're putting that in place tonight. Part of it is it sets tangible, measurable targets that councils actually need to meet in terms of measuring our performance. There is a whole section for the first time on the 24-Hour Economy. Putting things like encouraging additional nighttime spending across our city. That's a target. We're looking at it and we're down 20% on our nighttime spending from pre-pandemic levels. It's building upon where we were up to in the past, and then improving on that. So, getting at least an additional 10% to 15% nighttime spending now, putting in future DCPs, noise attenuation measures for new town centres, because that's always a challenge. You know you've had a restaurant or a small bar or a music venue that has been a part of the furniture of an area for years. A new residential development pops up next door, and the neighbours start complaining, and it's already under pressure there. So, they're the kind of more technical pieces which we've got.

[00:18:23] But also, it's about looking what works across a range of other local government areas.
Looking at the toolkit that's being rolled out from the New South Wales Government as well and trying to pick the eyes out of all the good bits which are there. We've got the nighttime economy, component of our economic strategy coming up, but also things like developing food truck policies so that we can activate our parks. Heffron Park, we've been trialling it for the last year, having food trucks pop up at some of our courts. It's a raging success, and it's looking at policies where we can encourage that across the city. A busking policy, implementing that in the coming months, as well as expanding on our paid performance, who we actually have across our town centres. We've ran it across two summers now and making that a permanent fixture as well.

Michael: [00:19:16] It's really exciting to hear you talk. For people listening, it's good to identify just the amount of work that you're signing yourself up for in a sense. Because it's kind of a bit, you're asking me for about 24-Hour Economy, nighttime economy, there's an element of-- it's in the public focus now in particularly because of the pandemic, but from the amount of work that you need to go through, either at state government levels, through your journey so far with more to come, it's equally is reflected in the work that councils are taking on.

[00:19:48] One observation I've had and feedback that's come from the investment community, which is that these are great signals to the investment committees that both government at all levels is backing a particular vision for an area. One fly in the ointment sometimes is how a mix of residents might react to a bold vision. So, you've got a vision for your area, and is everyone on board or some people complaining about a saxophone, and maybe that's not such a good thing, the residency, the world that you see or is it difference of opinion?

Dylan: [00:20:24] Look, there are really enjoyable parts of being a mayor of a very tightly knit
community. The benefits are, I would say that they're very close. But what it also means is that people feel comfortable contacting you when they don't like something. Like any council, across Sydney, across New South Wales, you have entrenched residents' groups, which have a particular sense of ownership over their streets, over their communities as how they want to eat, see their city grow and develop. But to be totally fair, they tend to represent a certain demographic. All I would say is that they don't necessarily look like me, they don't necessarily look like a younger person, or someone who is more interested in a vibrant nightlife. And that's not a criticism on anyone, it's just to say that generally, the types of community groups, which will kick up a stink about noise issues around activating places, aren't strictly representative of the community at large. It's actually a difficult thing to say at some point but it's also important to acknowledge that you can actually get trapped in a bit of an echo chamber.

[00:21:35] One thing which I found really refreshing is by talking about issues such as this, that you can actually bring the community along with you, if you put the pros of a more vibrant and diverse nightlife, not just to younger people, not just to businessowners, but to residents who also look at it and they go, "Well, don't have a raging bar next to my house." But you can actually put to people saying shared streets later in the evening are actually safer streets because you have a range of people and demographics, which are out. A diversity of nighttime offerings means that people aren't always shoved into massive beer barns, and stumbling out at 3:00 in the morning because they look at it and they go, "Well, actually, you know what? I didn't want to pack in like sardines at a venue. I actually only wanted to go for to a restaurant or go to a show, and then have a drink after."

[00:22:34] When you explain that to people, some will go, "No, no, no, no, under no circumstances,"
but others go, "Well, actually, it sounds like you we do share some interests, and I am open to it." I think it is important to acknowledge that not all instances, the people who'll be coming to you saying, "I hate this thing," or, "I think it's the worst proposal ever," are going to be reflective of the community. I've had so many people who say, "Actually, I really appreciate the fact that yes, it's complicated. Yes, there is a lot of moving parts here. But at least we have local governments and governments talking about a policy issue and a space which I care about, which is a vibrant liveable city."

Michael: [00:23:18] Can I ask you, specifically around the LGA and the unique aspects of Randwick,
which you might just outline, maybe in your response, like the geographical definition a bit for listeners?

I'm going to frame it a little bit this way. I was not set up for today, but did the Malabar Headland walk yesterday evening. It was amazing. Even getting rained on didn't dampen the spirits. But I'm reminded how blessed Sydney is with just this different topography and different experiences on our doorstep that people travel the world for. In terms of your geographical area what are the USPs, there's the university, there's a rail corridor that's got-- what makes Randwick pop when it comes to, for example, telling its story to international visitors or tourists in time?

Dylan: [00:24:20] Randwick has so many unique selling points which our community would happily spruik to the rest of the world. Look, I love other bits of Sydney, but as a mayor, yes, I can be a bit parochial, but I would honestly say, "Look, I think it is one of the most beautiful and dynamic parts of Sydney in plenty of ways." You have a major anchor tenant with the university. You have a significant health precinct. You have nearly 26 kilometres of coastline, which are the envy of not just the rest of Sydney, but all of New South Wales. You've got the iconic Coogee Beach. You've got phenomenal Maroubra Beach. As you mentioned, the beautiful Malabar Headland, as well as the iconic La Perouse Headland with so much history tied up into it. This is all a beauty and a history and a colour of an area.

[00:25:17] What I think we're missing is that nighttime component. You package up all of the natural beauty, all of the history of that particular area, and you tie that to thriving arts and culture, thriving nightlife scene at Randwick, I hazard a guess that no bit of Sydney could beat it. It's a real draw card, because it really has all of the combinations. It does have its challenges though. Why I look at it and I think it's important to acknowledge the challenges is I go if you can crack Randwick, you can pretty much crack most parts of Sydney, because you've got long-term established heritage suburbs in the north, you've got quiet suburban streets in the south, you've got diverse town centres as well. But along the Anzac Parade, from about Centennial Park down to where the old Nine Ways used to be in
Kingsford, there is an area which has-- because of several years of light rail construction, then the
double whammy with COVID on top, there is a significant amount of business attrition along there. I look at that, and I go that is very hard for local small businesses, the students haven't been there, but it's also a fresh opportunity.

[00:26:42] There really is an ability there to-- literally just kilometres from the heart of the CBD side, we can make this a thriving hub. From unique selling points, you've got a university right there, you've got a hospital right there, you've got a port and an airport. We're really right on Sydney's gateway, and rather than heading into the city, there's so much beauty right here, so much to offer. And you throw in thriving nighttime scene as well, why would you go anywhere else?

Michael: [00:27:18] Yeah. Genuinely is quite exciting. One thing I'm trying to get into the collective
consciousness of nighttime economy practitioners in Sydney, is that we often reference London and New York when we're talking about nighttime economy, neither of which cities are reputed for their pristine coastlines, and beaches and beach culture. I just think it's a gap in our storytelling of our own city, because our reference points are potentially places like Mexico and Rio, when it comes to nightlife in coastal areas, for example. It just is amazing and exciting to have this conversation. I also like the retail observation and really keen to see how those trials go, because as nighttime economies come to life, that diversification away from one type of entertainment, which has sometimes in the past tended, towards alcohol, it may actually be an opportunity for a struggling retail sector. I get that there's penalty rates and all the challenges that might go with that. But maybe it isn't the best decision to open at 9:00 in the morning, and maybe opening 2:00 in the afternoon and trading through the 10:00, the flexibility is there from the regulatory bodies, then maybe that is something that adds to the overall experience of evening out.

[00:28:39] I was running around Martin Place the other night and saw something that was open to
trade in the evening, which is just probably because there's more people out enjoying the city as an entertainment district now as opposed to the corporate use it's had in the past. I'm really keen to see what you deliver up for us. Just want to talk a little bit about arts and culture specifically. It's a bit of a subset of the conversation track we've been on. But you did describe it as Newtown of the East, the which is a nice complement to Newtown as well. I think we should call that out as an area that has thrived through lockout and there's a lot of community management of decisions around who should come to the area and party buses has been turned away. There's a lot to take from that example, because, of course, there was an increase in violence that many people feel would happen notwithstanding the increase in footfall. So nice compliment to say Newtown of the East. I think creative communities are looking for homes. What's the attraction, and how do you see arts and culture in particular coming to life in in your area?

Dylan: [00:29:48] Local arts and culture is so important is because it gives people a reason to actually come. You look at it and you go-- restaurants are all across Sydney. There's not a suburb in Sydney bar some very industrial ones which doesn't have a restaurant. There isn't a suburb in Sydney that doesn't have a bar or a pub of some sort. But it's about bringing people to an area where there is a diversity of offerings. One of the things which I think is a real challenge, but something, once again, is an
opportunity to work on. With the exception of NIDA, there isn't a single theater in in Randwick city
council. We've got one cinema, which is a beautiful art deco cinema, the Ritz, and is much loved by our community. But if you want small bar owners, or beautiful restaurants or diversity of retail as well, there needs to be a variety of offerings. People don't normally just come and do one thing and then leave.

They want to do a range of things. And I look at it and I go, "Arts and culture is the special sauce to
some extent that, that puts it all together."

[00:31:03] I know, for example, me and my partner, we like to go to de Marrickville, and I love Lazy
Bones, but I don't just go to Lazy Bones. I'll go see a gig there, but I'll also go to dinner. I might see
what else is on earlier in the afternoon, or whatever it is, and then you spend a period of time there.
And I look at that, and I go, "Well-- Credit to the west, I guess, you've got a Randwick man that's
travelling in order to do that. But for me, I look and I go, "I don’t want to have to travel." As much as I
love that part of Sydney, I'd much rather enjoy it at home. For me, I'm travelling for the arts and culture component. If you can give that to people at home, then hopefully you'll get the rest of it.

[00:31:51] Locally, there's still a lot of opportunity there. You look at the institutions, which we have.
We've got NIDA there. There's also some beautiful historical spots which can be activated. I was in a conversation with a gentleman from NIDA about activating the La Perouse Museum, which has a
fantastic, beautiful history, which is tied to a variety of different uses, but also interest groups. And you go, well, it doesn't just have to be a museum. It can have a variety of uses there, which will keep people locally.

Michael: [00:32:26] Yeah. It's the storytelling aspect, isn't it? The thing that where it's influenced our
thinking around deliver the 24-Hour Economy Strategy in that. When New South Wales government is looking at grants programs for this space, we're looking at the flow through impact of the spend into small businesses in the area, and also artists and creatives in and from the area, because I think if you don't have that lens, what you end up with is a homogeneity of offering, because just one thing that
you're doing in one place is just transported to another, because the same operators are bringing their second and third venue to life, it's just as great but also, what's good is when people who want to have their own story and can tell it in their local area makes it exciting for the rest of us.

[00:33:14] Well, looking forward to the discussion on La Perouse. Again, I think it's something for, us as government, to be thinking about is investments and funding in the areas of cultural infrastructure, if we can call it that. And are these located across the city, or they concentrated in one area? That's one
thing that I think there'll be some reflections on as part of the 24-Hour Economy Strategy and hopefully other government agencies can work together to help with some of those initiatives. We've been having a really good discussion about all things, nightlife, 24-Hour Economy in Randwick City Council with second youngest mayor, as it currently stands.

Dylan: [00:33:48] Not grumpy about that at all.

Michael: [00:33:49] [chuckles] Happens to all of us, eh? It only goes downhill from here. I'm the
youngest 24-Hour Economy Commissioner, I should put that out there. The only one as well. But either way, take it where you can. Someone else will beat my record in time, I hope. I'm just going to wrap
with a couple of questions, don’t know if that's all right. So, the first is COVID has thrown us a lot of
challenges, but also opportunities to reimagine Sydney. What's one opportunity that excites you the most?

Dylan: [00:34:12] Its inability to take back our streets. I look at it and I go, "If people aren't travelling,
there's all of this unused road space really." And people have been walking around their city, actually they've fallen in love with it and they've gone, "How can we reimagine our streets in a way that is liveable, is breathable?" And it is well, is exciting, where you can have all the arts, the culture, the entertainment, right there on our normal suburban streets. I look at that and I go, "That's a phenomenal opportunity." As well as just looking at going, "So much of our city is dedicated to cars. Can we take some of it back and give it to outdoor entertainment?"

Michael: [00:34:50] The 24-Hour Economy Strategy contains this idea of a Neon Grid, which is how
Sydney lights up at different times of the day and night across the great metropolitan. With that in mind, what's one experience of your area that you would most like to share with others?

Dylan: [00:35:03] My view, and it's not going to come as a surprise to anyone is, everyone's drawn to
our area because of the beach. We've got phenomenal beaches, Coogee, Maroubra. My great dream is that if people come for the beach, they stay at the beach, they stay for dinner, they stay for a show. I look at it, and you go you start your day at Coogee, spend the day there, go have a bite to eat, stay at the beach. And then in the evening, when the sun sets, you're up the hill to the spot, you're at a small bar, you're at back country, my local favourite. And then, you roll out after a few martinis across to the Ritz. And then, you've seen a movie over there. Hopefully, we can see that all across the area. But that's what I would say would be a classic Randwick experience.

Michael: [00:35:49] It's a great way to wrap up a podcast. Your uphill journey from Coogee Bay to the spot is somewhat in contrast to my downhill journey from UNSW where I did my study to the Coogee Bay on a more regular basis than I like to do.

Dylan, thanks so much for your good work and the civic service that you provide. And I look forward to seeing the great things that will come under your leadership in your council area.

Dylan: [00:36:15] Thank you.

Michael: [00:36:16] Thanks for listening to The Neo Grid podcast. I hope you enjoyed that episode. To get involved our efforts to reimagine Sydney's 24-Hour Economy, sign up to The Neon Grid newsletter.

You'll find that on the Investment New South Wales website, which is at investment.nsw.gov.au. Or hit the link in the show notes. You can also follow me, your host Michael Rodrigues on LinkedIn. And as always, carpe noctem.


[music]

Episode 2. Karl Schlothauer

Karl Schlothauer is a bar owner and the President of the Independent Bar Association.

Episode details

One of the largest playing cards for Sydney’s night life is YCK Laneways - the buzzing cluster of small bars located across York, Clarence and Kent Streets. Tune in to this episode as Michael Rodrigues speaks to the owner of Sydney’s award-winning and loved small bars, co-founder of YCK Laneways and President of the Independent Bars Association (IBA), Karl Schlothauer.

In this episode, you will learn about:

  • the IBA’s establishment and purpose
  • how the COVID pandemic shaped Sydney’s nightlife relationships
  • how technology will connect Sydney’s venues together and improve user experience.

If you're curious, visit:

To keep up to date with the efforts behind Sydney’s 24-hour economy:

Find and connect with Karl on LinkedIn

Produced by Pod Paste, in Sydney Australia.

Transcript

Karl: [00:00:04] Back when I first started running a bar, there were a lot of questions I had about legislation but I was too scared to go and ask Liquor & Gaming. This is a place where you can come and say, “Is this right?” “Does this comply?”. Collectively with increased patronage, and now you can open up a small bar license quite quickly with an interim license. These are some of the benefits of being organised.

Michael: Welcome to The Neon Grid. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. I'm often asked, “What's the biggest impediment to unlocking the potential of the nighttime economy in New South Wales?”. My answer? Collaboration. Bottomline for the 24-Hour Economy Strategy and the work that my office has been set up to do is that we will live or die on our ability to coordinate the activities of NSW Government, local councils all across the state, and industry. In the same way a scientist might conduct a laboratory experiment, I've been working with a bunch of fellow chemists for nearly a year now on a prototype for going out districts. Our very own sandpit, so to speak, the collaboration we need to deliver on the government's vision for Sydney. Chief amongst co-conspirators is today's guest, Karl Schlothauer, former model and Sydney small bar owner. Karl co-founded the Independent Bars Association (IBA) for much the same reasons as I co-founded the NTIA (Night Time industries Association), to coordinate industry and improve the operating conditions for businesses in the sector.

[00:01:20] Today, we'll chat about his role in shaping Sydney through the work of the IBA, which for the main part has been behind the scenes, but we will also interrogate the workings of YCK Laneways, a hitherto unnamed area of Sydney that is home to some of our city's most loved and awarded small bars. YCK has really captured the imagination of decision makers in governments, councils across Sydney, and industry leaders across the nation. It's also started to gain international recognition having been nominated for the Best Night Time Economy Initiative at the Music Cities Awards. Will it win? Well, win or not, it's already done a job because since inception, business in the area, absent lockdown, saw significant footfall and revenue growth. Punters love it. And that's the only test that really matters. Grab something cold, take a seat or remain standing if you prefer, for my interview with small bar pioneer, Karl Schlothauer.

Michael: [00:02:14] Karl Schlothauer, mate, it's good to see you. I've never seen you with a microphone in your hand, but I'm envisaging that at one point in time, you were on stage, is that right?

Karl: [00:02:24] Yes, one point in time, I was on stage.

Michael: [00:02:26] I met you I think when you were-- I'm going to get this wrong, but maybe the venue manager owner something at Favela, was it Favela?

Karl: [00:02:35] Oh, yes. I was the marketing and functions director at Favela in the Cross.

Michael: [00:02:39] You'd be wearing one of those hats, what are they called?

Karl: [00:02:42] I had an array of little good top hats. Cheers.

Michael: [00:02:44] [laughs] So, you were on stage before, was it a DJ or front man?

Karl: No, not so much on the stage at Favela. More the stage stuff was back in my thinner years, I like to call it, as I was modelling for about 12-15 years, traded the stage for the catwalk.

Michael: [00:03:02] So, hence Stitch, hence Pocket, hence Button. Nothing to do with your fashion background?

Karl: [00:03:08] I would like to think I'm that clever. We didn't even see the synergies between them until someone pointed to that when we opened up Stitch. And then obviously when we opened up Button, that was just for the fun of it.

Michael: [00:03:20] Great to have you on, as listeners might have worked out by now, we're reasonably well acquainted, either through the industry, Independent Bars Association, a whole bunch of connections these days. We've covered some of your background, but fashion model come leading luminary of the bar industry. I remember that Pocket bar, when I was at Time Out, picked up Bar of the Year, if I recall rightly.

Karl: [00:03:41] Yeah, we got the People's Choice Award.

Michael: [00:03:43] People's Choice. Yeah, so exciting to have you on. Just a bit about you yourself, what took you into from fashion into opening up venues then?

Karl: [00:03:50] Well, funnily enough, I travelled all up and down the East Coast with modelling. Often when I moved to a new city, I didn't know anyone. So, I had this model of find a bar that I like, and I'll generally find people in there that are similar to me. That was really evident when I was in Melbourne, there was a little dive bar called Blue Bar, and we basically lived there for three or four nights a week. They didn't do anything too flash in terms of food and beverage, but it was just the way they make you feel and the experience you had there. And that's the whole thing that attracted me to opening up our own bar, is creating those memorable experiences.

Michael: [00:04:26] It's a bit geeky now, but I just must admit, just come off stage at Tales of the Cocktail, it's been a career highlight, actually, I've been meaning to speak of that.

Unfortunately, I didn't go to New Orleans to do it, but at least I did it remotely. But I guess I mention that because the era of bars in Sydney, you sort of came up in a small bar movement, I guess, but you did go into that period of, I guess what I describe as focus on cocktails and bartender expertise. Whereas it's interesting hearing how your bar came to be, which was no doubt quality drinks was part of it, but it also had that other element of-- and probably bit that has a greater longevity, which is that theme of bringing people together who are like minded or want to sort of meet people with similar background?

Karl: [00:05:08] Yeah, correct. I think that's what excites me the most now about Australia's bar industry is about people's take on hospitality, the experience they create, and the environment they create for people to connect. You've just got to look at some of the small bars popping up now, the product offering is quite small, but the experience you have there is unbelievable.

Michael: [00:05:29] I think as experienced veterans of the industry, we've seen that change. Let's jump in there. You just mentioned small bars popping up. It's a pretty brutal time for anything popping up. In terms of the businesses, what's popping up that I should know about?

Karl: [00:05:45] Not so much new businesses, but like the guys from Stefano, the stuff that he's starting to do now. It's all about experience. Like you go in there, and I remember how I get treated and more so than how, what the food and drink tasted like, if you know what I mean.

Michael: [00:06:04] Yeah, totally. Stefano, Maybe Frank, Maybe Sammy, Sammy Junior, and if you can remember the-- there's another one, is there?

Karl: [00:06:13] There's one in the hotel bar, but that escapes me.

Michael: [00:06:16] Oh, it's Dean & Nancy's maybe. Anyway, but I think the point there you're getting at is the experience over the product in a sense, all of the experience is the product. Let’s just use the opportunity, part of this podcast is really about information exchange, and it'd be good just to-- it's on the cusp of reopening at the moment or discussions around it anyway. What's the vibe? What's going on? Speak for yourself, but also as in your capacity as the President of the Independent Bars Association?

Karl: [00:06:41] The vibes quite positive to tell you the truth. Everyone's excited about reopening. I think the pent-up demand we're going to see, very similar, if not stronger to what happened reopening from the first lockdown. We're going to see the regions in the outer suburbs of Sydney explode with people going out and the CBD might take a little bit longer. There's some concerns around what it's going to look like a couple of weeks into reopening and living with COVID.

Michael: [00:07:10] What are the concerns, specifically, a couple of weeks in? Let's interrogate that a bit further.

Karl: [00:07:15] What's going to happen when undoubtedly transmission happens at your venue? Are your staff going to have to isolate? Are you going to have to shut down the business for potentially two weeks because all your staff are isolating? Those sorts of things that haven't been ironed out as of yet.

Michael: [00:07:32] So, there's the known unknowns at the moment, which hopefully some clarity might be brought to those things in the coming weeks. What about from a patron experience perspective and demand, any concerns about that? You mentioned that the regions will have a slightly different rate of return to perhaps CBD, but what's going through your mind there?

Karl: [00:07:49] I think they're all eager to get out, to be honest. I think there might be a little bit of re-training of what going out is again, and a bit of behaviour training. But overall, everyone I've spoken to can't wait to get out and support all the businesses that have been shut down.

Michael: [00:08:05] It's sort of second round, isn't it? We've had to go through a period of behavioural adjustment both for venues and for patrons in terms of systems and processes for you, and experience for us in terms of checking, sanitising, QR codes. Do you think that it will inevitably be different? We're talking vaccine passes and these sorts of different processes, potentially, but I guess we've been through it once, in a sense, do you agree?

Karl: [00:08:36] Yeah. I think the check in, sanitising, all that won't be a drama. I think there'll be some great door debates around the vaccine entry. But I think that'll be the biggest learning curve for everyone.

Michael: [00:08:49] You know me, I'm all about ideas. What do you reckon of this one? We try and get mobile vaccination clinics into the CBD. Because there'll be people that turn up at a venue and they're not vaccinated potentially, then the reaction is going to be, “Ah, you suck,” whatever. Or, “I'm going to try and get to another venue.” If you're not vaccinated, “Hey, look, there's somewhere you can get vaccinated.”

Karl: [00:09:17] "Here's a $20 drinks voucher in two weeks when you try to come back."

Michael: [00:09:22] Yeah. Well, maybe. I don't know. I think there could be something, but maybe not.

Karl: [00:09:25] Maybe link it in with Dine & Discover, why not?

Michael: [00:09:28] Yeah, go and redeem. I guess that's one thing to just touch on. And I guess this will date the podcast, but all the signs will be that we’ll accelerate through the 80% and then, you'll get to this tail end component. Really, what we want to do is make sure it's a real minority at that end, if you're a venue operator or anyone who wants to see their city come back, you understand that vaccination potentially is pretty important to that process without stepping on the toes of people who have different ideological views on the subject matter. But yeah, I think that anything we can do to see that vaccination rate rise is a good thing.

Karl: [00:10:03] Yeah, 100% agree.

Michael: [00:10:05] It's interesting for me, having just come off Tales actually, where I talked a lot about how to affect change in a city, and you and I had a common experience when we united really to help get the Independent Bars up, and then the Night Time Industries Association up and both those organisations became a continuing part of the city infrastructure when it comes to going out as they help to bring about indeed my role in government in some ways. Let's talk a little bit about the Independent Bars if we can for a while. What motivated you to take a leadership role? Which, by the way, has been very much needed and all credit to you.

Karl: [00:10:45] Just some of the struggles that I went through as being an owner-operator. You quickly learned that you've got to be a mini expert at almost everything. Council regulations, liquor license, noise regs, workplace laws, and these things change all the time. There was no real body or an association that I could go to and ask for support. Like the AHA existed, and that's for the pubs and hotels, or restaurants, but they didn't really understand the small bar culture that was going through. And the more I spoke to other bar owners, they all thought that there should be something that existed and that's how the Independent Bars came about.

Michael: [00:11:23] But why you though, why not someone else?

Karl: [00:11:25] I was just bored.

Michael: [00:11:29] I was channelling Mark Bouris. I was on his podcast, and he just drilled me, man, like, “Why you? Why not someone else?”. But I won't let you get away with that one, I think you were bored, but also, I think that you'd reached a stage in your professional life that you saw a need that was bigger than yourself, I'll put it to you that way.

Karl: [00:11:45] Yeah, that's a great way of putting it. There were challenges and I was ready for the next challenge in my career. I think, at that point, I had seven venues on the go. There's a wealth of knowledge in the noggin’, and I was ready to share that knowledge, and I thought that the Association was a great way to do that.

Michael: [00:12:02] That must have been some three or four years ago, 2017 actually, I remember we had that conversation overseas after dark.

Karl: [00:12:07] I believe I had to chase you for about a year to get a meeting.

Michael: [00:12:11] [laughs] It's getting worse these days. But thinking about the journey of the Independent Bars Association, I think it's a very hard gig for a number of reasons without insulting half a bar industry in one go, but it's a disparate set of stakeholders, small business, which means time available. I remember you very recently describing just that challenge you have trying to get in touch with people. You can't send an email and expect a response.

How's the association tracking? Is membership growing? Why should people get involved? Where does your support come from?

Karl: [00:12:44] Yeah, the association is tracking quite well where with Sydney, last time I checked, 120 plus members. I think there's 200 small bar licenses in NSW at the moment. We're growing and through the pandemic, we're seeing that grow a little bit faster than what we normally would.

Why people should join? Just for knowledge sharing. I think when I look back, when I first started running a bar, there were a lot of questions I had about legislation, but I was too scared to go and ask the police, too scared to go and ask Liquor & Gaming. And this is a place where you can come and say, “Look, this is how I'm doing it. Is this right? Does this comply?”. And then, we can advise around there. I think that's where a lot of members get a lot of their benefit. And also, collectively, we normally are experiencing the same pain points and then we can then go and advocate on behalf of all the members. We've managed to get a fair bit of change in the last, what, three or four years that we've been going. So, it's been quite good.

Michael: [00:13:46] I'm reminded of David Brent in The Office, "The results speak for themselves,". It's been a remarkable turnaround in some ways, I think, in terms of the landscape being adjusted to recognise the value, importance, and business nature of a small bar. I know there's a lot left to be done. It was not an easy ask to actually get the organisation set up and also get it really engaged with government, both at city council level, but also at state government level. And for me, nowadays, and speaking at Tales, I was trying to educate people globally about the importance of being organised, particularly in context of a pandemic, because it allows someone in my role to come to someone like you and get a very quick read on a situation or get advice that's, generally speaking, representative of multiple interests beyond your own and therefore feed that back into the machine and use a machine of a epic size government.

Without that, I would be having to make 20 or 30 phone calls across the sector to try and understand an issue that you might be able to refine for me in words of one syllable. I guess you've explained to me what you see the value for some of the potential members and members existing, but from a government perspective, and I think that-- now, I'm in the government, I can say, "Hey, it's incredibly valuable," just because you try to make decisions for a vast group of people, and what you base those decisions on.

Karl: [00:15:15] Before, there were decisions being made about small bars without any consultation. That avenue now is there for them to reach out to us, and they do quite often. Some of the things that we've seen change with small bars since the Independent Bars Association has been around is the controversial minors into small bars, takeaway cocktails, we can now do that post pandemic. We've increased patronage from 60 persons up to 120. And now, you can open up a small bar license quite quickly with an interim license. These are some of the benefits of being organised. Michael: [00:15:55] I was also thinking a little bit about some of the things that have continued to evolve from the creation of the Independent Bars Association. I really like what you said about earlier in this interview, people who are like-minded or seeking a similar experience, I think that's something that resonates with me. We'll come on and talk about YCK in a second, but if you look at the diversity of experiences that are almost cousins, there's a sort of network of different but engaging spaces, personalities, and entertainment offerings in the city, generally across bars, because I think that the personality of the owner tends to shine through those things in a way they can't be repressed.

Karl: [00:16:36] I 100% agree. I think that's another great value of that, because you get to see things from multiple different lenses.

Michael: [00:16:44] And by personality, I mean fashion sense in your case. But let's just start move on to YCK for a second. It's a subject matter that's dear to both of our hearts because of all the blood, sweat, and tears and the effort, particularly in the context of a pandemic. It's got a lot of attention media wise, government wise, and shaping a bit of thinking and questioning, because I think everyone's going, "What's the future?". What is the future of going out, actually? That's one thing I sit here thinking about, I’ve been thinking about for last 10 years, really. Let’s chat about that. Just give us for people who may not be familiar with YCK, why don't you give us a bit of an overview?

Karl: [00:17:22] Yeah. YCK is the acronym for York, Clarence and Kent Streets. In that little-- I think it's a couple of blocks. There's probably about 20 or so small bars in there, 15 of which have joined YCK. And probably for the last five or six years, we've been talking about trying to define it as a district of small bars so when people go out, they go, “Okay, I'm going to the Rocks,” or, “I'm going to the Harbor, but now I'm going to YCK.”. It never really took hold until the pandemic came along and there's nothing like a good pandemic to light the fire under people trying to get them out and about.

Michael: [00:18:03] Let's focus on that for a second. In terms of lighting fires under people, there's two stakeholders here. There's the consumer, but also, there's the venue owners themselves, I think, would you agree with that?

Karl: [00:18:14] Yep. 100%.

Michael: [00:18:16] What was it about the pandemic that brought these venue owners together? Why now, why not before?

Karl: [00:18:21] Put it simply, cash. I think we just all realised the CBD, it was down like 60% on revenue. So, we needed to do something together to create a big bang to get people into the city and into our venues. That couldn't be done by just one person flying the flag for themselves.

Michael: [00:18:45] On that analysis, you would suggest that once the good times roll again, you can just disband YCK, is that what you plan to do?

Karl: [00:18:56] No, there's big plans for YCK. Big, big plans.

Michael: [00:18:59] Why don't you tell me about them?

Karl: [00:19:01] Well, we've done the two festivals already. We did the YCK Block Party, which ran for six weeks, and then we jumped in with the Sydney Solstice, and that was for two weeks. Now, we're currently looking at creating an annual program where each quarter, we would run a four-week festival where typically foot traffic and CBD visitation is down. Then, there's also talks about slightly theming each of those. Basically, we would have four 4-week festivals per year.

Michael: [00:19:34] That's one benefit in terms of balancing our audience or filling the lull period, which demand management or something. But let's go with there's that advantage, but in terms of, YCK, again from its first incarnation, the first festival attracted partnership money from the City of Sydney and the NSW Government.

Karl: [00:19:58] Bacardi, AmEx.

Michael: [00:20:00] Yeah. And Fever-Tree also came on board, if I remember rightly.

Karl: [00:20:03] Yep. Correct.

Michael: [00:20:04] I suppose one of the other things that through my lens, I'm looking at this thinking, well, depending on who you speak to the hospitality sector, as a whole has had challenges with its operating margin for the last few years with rents and cost of labor, and so on and so forth. Anything you could do to diversify revenue streams seems worth thinking about. Also, anything you can do to lower costs is worth thinking about. You and I were talking about someone that had gone to a waste management company and tried to negotiate a bulk waste disposal rate and hadn't got it up, is that right?

Karl: [00:20:36] Yeah, that's correct. So, yeah, if they separated out all of their waste, they could reduce their waste bill, but they have trouble getting a whole bunch of businesses in the area to get on board.

Michael: [00:20:47] And are you looking at things like that for YCK? I guess there's just the sheer challenge of lack of resources during a time like this, and also people not necessarily being focused on matter like that. But do you see that being future value in analysing and seeking opportunities like that?

Karl: [00:21:01] 100%. There's also a great opportunity to look at technology and how we can connect all of those venues together for a better user experience. Michael: [00:21:09] Let's talk about that for a second. What might that look like?

Karl: [00:21:13] One of your famous quotes is, "Two clicks and that keeps people on the couch. One click for UberEATS and one click for Netflix." So, going out is becoming a lot more challenging, and a lot harder. And given now you're in a pandemic or post-pandemic world, there's time limits on venues, there's lower capacity, trying to get a place or have a whole night out is getting a little bit harder. So, imagine you can go to a district that's all talking to each other, through one sort of platform, you can go and book at multiple different venues, have that all sorted and your night's sorted. That's the sort of stuff I'm looking at the moment.

Michael: [00:21:51] I hadn't really thought about it necessarily in terms of the two clicks to stay in and how many does it take to go out conversation. Of course, I'm across that having come up with that brainwave and trumpeted for a number of years. But what I hadn't thought about and you just really sparked the electricity on my Neon Grid, is about the bookings. And the CBD in the return from lockdown, the first one, became like a military exercise with precision. My phone had never been busier in terms of, “Can you get me into these places, Mike?”. It was quite hard because, understandably, our prized venues were Friday, Saturday night.

Here's an anecdote for you, I was living in London once, and don’t ask me why, but I was staying at the Ritz. People had said the service of Ritz is amazing. I'd rung up at 10:00 PM on a Friday night to get a booking in the restaurant in London. I can't remember what it was at the time, and the desk almost started laughing at me.

[00:22:55] To their credit, they came back in 30 minutes and said, “Sir, there's a place for one at 11:30 PM tonight, will you go and take it?". I looked around the room, the other four guys, I'm like, “Well, probably not.”. But I guess the point I was making is that time scheduling is going to become part of COVID normal existence for a little bit, at least, if not on an ongoing basis. And even if it wasn't, for venues that are desirable, with the pressure business model, that could be a potential game changer, I would have thought.

Karl: [00:23:21] I couldn't agree more.

Michael: [00:23:23] With YCK, it's a collection of bars and interim, but you and I were talking, and the 24-Hour economy Strategy really is about diversity of offering. One thing that we recognise is that people go out for a variety of reasons. And in terms of that YCK area, are you engaging with different non-F&B businesses to potentially join or what's going on? Karl: [00:23:44] Yeah, starting to now. The plan is to really not just concentrate on the nighttime, but also include daytime, small boutique, retail, accommodation. So, then you can really start to plan out what a visit might look like to YCK. Michael: [00:23:58] So, that might be a hotel, it might be like a QVB, for example, but it could also be, as I will be needing, a haircut in good time, because I think there's a bunch of barber shops in there, if I recall correctly.

Karl: [00:24:10] There's opportunity for all business types to join. That's what really excites me about the next stage of YCK of what falls out of those discussions.

Michael: [00:24:20] YCK is member funded then? You've incorporated as an association like the Bars Association almost but for a district, and it's people paying fees or what's going on?

Karl: [00:24:31] Yeah, that's correct. So, we've got a whole fee structure. Our website should be updated in a matter of days, weeks, to start onboarding new members, but it is an association.

Michael: [00:24:41] It's such an interesting case study and it reflects what goes on in the UK actually, with what's called a Business Improvement District, which is a concept that a lot of people who are listening in our councils will be familiar with, which is where businesses go, you know what? Actually, if we chip in a bit, it makes sense because we can develop a bit of scale, we can market the district, we can pay someone to actually help manage the show, as I think is really going to be the case in the next couple of years. Government and city councils are going to be pretty engaged with the going out landscape, because the taxpayers require us to have the going out infrastructure, roads, rail, all this kind of stuff is partly what the taxpayer is invested in, and if it's not being used, well, it's a big problem. I think that the government benefits of being able to engage with district, you can look at YCK, you can look at London or the UK, and you'll see the similarities.

Karl, I want to just throw you a couple of questions as we round out. Here's a question for you. COVID-19 has thrown us all a lot of challenges, but also opportunities. What's one opportunity that excites you the most?

Karl: [00:25:46] Well, I think you touched on it before. Government is really invested in looking at districts and helping and making sure they work, and looking at the nighttime economy. In my small lifetime of dealing with government, I've never seen them so open to looking at the opportunities that could potentially lay ahead.

Michael: [00:26:05] Well summarised, and that is experienced that predates the reversal of certain laws and so forth. I think it's good for people to understand that you've been a witness to change in the city. It is government strategy, actually. The thing that I've been employed to deliver is to change Sydney’s narrative, and also make an exciting place for people to come live, work, play, and then ultimately invest to generate new industries of which are the going out economies. So, you'll be familiar in the 24-Hour Economy Strategy of the Neon Grid concept, which is, as I like to put it, how Sydney lights up telling different stories of different neighbourhoods at different times of day and night. With reference to YCK, give us your top experience.

Karl: [00:26:48] Well, it'd have to be when I took my wife down to YCK. She listens to all my far-stretched ideas and just shrugs them off. We live up on the central coast. She hadn't been out in the city for, I think, maybe three or four years. I said, “Look, let me take you down there. We'll stay at a hotel in the district, and I'll take you to all the venues.”. When we walked around, and she got to visit all the basement bars and in the back alleys, I got a little bit more preferential service than, I guess, maybe the normal punter would be, but just to see that sense of excitement and exploration of the city, she was like, “I can't believe this never existed before. I can't believe I've never seen this before. This is amazing. How come you didn’t tell me?”. I think that what's really excites me, is touring YCK, seeing people walking around with their phones going, “Oh, this is where Grandma's is. This is where this venue is.”. That's pretty cool.

Michael: [00:27:48] What a great way to finish. The main message there is that it's a great city, let's get out and explore it. I'm sure you'll appreciate YCK, other areas, the more people go out, the more people are prone to experience. The note I'd like to finish this podcast on is that your wife and my wife who get together as two long-suffering people who've had to listen to crazy ideas over a long period of time.

Michael: [00:28:10] Hey, Karl, it's been a pleasure having you on. And honestly from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of many people, thanks so much for your continued steadfast service to the going out sector. Your role has been really seminal in terms of taking the Independent Bars and really, really reshaping the city. I think that if there's anyone in the industry that's listening wants to think about how they can make an impact beyond their own selves and what they can do as an individual, then looking up to you and looking at the movement that you've created, both with the independent bars and YCK, I think they should look no further. On that note, thanks for being the guest on The Neon Grid podcast.

Karl: [00:28:47] My pleasure to be here. Thanks, Mike.

Michael: [00:28:52] Thanks for listening Neon Grid podcast. I hope you enjoyed the episode. To get involved with our efforts to reimagine Sydney's 24-Hour Economy, sign up to The Neon Grid newsletter. You'll find that on the Investment NSW website, which is that investment.nsw.gov.au. Or hit the link in the show notes. You can also follow me, your host, Michael Rodrigues, on LinkedIn. And as always, carpe noctem.


Episode 1. Lindy Deitz

Lindy Deitz is the General Manager of Campbelltown City Council. 

Episode details

The City of Campbelltown in Sydney's south west is home to a diverse demographic on the traditional lands of the Dharawal people. With rapid population growth and a new 24-hour airport due to open on its doorstep, Campbelltown is undergoing an impressive transformation. Tune into this episode as Michael Rodrigues chats with Lindy Deitz, General Manager of Campbelltown City Council on Campbelltown’s strong community and how they’re shaping the future of their city.

In this episode, you will learn about:

  • what 12 to 18 months of research taught the council about the Campbelltown community’s vision
  • the process behind creating Campbelltown’s Master Plan
  • what to expect in Campbelltown’s reinvigoration leading up to 2036.

For more on the transformation of Campbelltown, check out their videos on:

Download the PDFs:

To keep up to date, subscribe to The Neon Grid newsletter

Find and connect with Lindy on LinkedIn

Produced by Pod Paste, in Sydney, Australia.

Transcript

Lindy: [00:00:04] You don't put a vision on top of a community. The community actually need to share with you what their dreams are. I spent the first few years with the community to say, “Well, we don't control the growth, and the growth is going to come whether you like it or not. We either join hands and help shape what that growth is going to look like. Or, we let it just run over the top of us.”

[Neon Grid theme]

Michael: [00:00:28] Welcome to The Neon Grid podcast. I'm your host, Michael Rodrigues. As the state's inaugural 24-Hour Economy Commissioner, I have a huge job ahead of me in revitalising Sydney's dying-out economy. It's been through everything. Lockout, bushfires, and now a pandemic. Suffice to say, it's a job that I can't do by myself. It's got to be done hand in hand with folks across New South Wales Government, city councils all over the state, and working with industries as diverse as sport and comedy, to hospitality and transport.

The pandemic has taught us that quality information exchange between sector participants builds decision making in a rapidly changing world. So, in the coming months, I'll be interviewing the best and brightest from across this stakeholder set. People with different stories, varying perspectives, and with a range of expertise and experience. In amongst all this difference, I'm on the hunt for one unifying trademark, and that's optimism. You will find here a community of city builders with a supersized appetite for reinvigorated Sydney and the wherewithal to making that happen.

There's no better place to start than my first guest, Lindy Deitz. Lindy is the General Manager of Campbelltown City Council in Sydney Southwest, home to a diverse demographic on the traditional lands of the Dharawal people. With rapid population growth and a new 24-hour airport for Sydney due to open on its doorstep in just five years’ time, I'm keen to understand how the area will be transformed, what the opportunities for business might be, but most importantly, how communities will shape the story of place during this time, and in so doing, provide colour and texture to Sydney's overall narrative as we go about our work together, making this city the best in the world to live, work, and play.

[music]

Michael: [00:02:14] Welcome, Lindy Deitz. You're the first guest on The Neon Grid podcast.

Lindy: [00:02:17] Thank you very much, Michael, a privilege.

Michael: [00:02:17] It's not certain your only first time, I'm led to believe, but I'll come to that. I want to ask you about your vision for Campbelltown. But before that, and along with many other Sydneysiders, last weekend, I found myself picnicking because it was allowed, and in fine company I should add. This person just happened to be a mutual acquaintance of yours, someone you worked with. I mentioned I was doing this interview, and unsolicited, this is what she said, “You are the most amazing leader ever. A next generation strategic thinker. Someone who leads in a way that is very authentic and from the heart, and someone who creates space for difference and adversity of new ways.”

Lindy: [00:02:53] Wow. Okay.

Michael: [00:02:55] Any idea who might have said that?

Lindy: [00:02:57] Let me guess, Lisa Havilah?

Michael: [00:02:59] Oh, you know [crosstalk]?

[laughter]

Lindy: [00:03:01] Yeah, she's an incredible person. It was an absolute privilege. We learned a lot from each other in her time at Campbelltown. She was pretty amazing.

Michael: [00:03:09] I have known Lisa for longer than I've known you, and I hold her in high regard. It was just one of those nice moments to me, coming on and having someone like Lisa say that she worked with you and give you that kind of applause. But it gave me some context, actually, because the other thing she mentioned is that you may have begun your professional life at Campbelltown City Council, is that correct or is it not quite?

Lindy: [00:03:31] No, not quite. I'm a registered nurse by training, actually. So, my first job was at the Sand in Wahroonga. Second job was at Camden Hospital.

Michael: [00:03:43] And from there, into council?

Lindy: [00:03:44] That's right.

Michael: [00:03:45] How do you go from nursing-- I suppose you're caring for people and then you were living in the area or something like that, and then you--?

Lindy: [00:03:51] Really, it does sound strange to people, but it's not strange at all for me. I'm a very idealistic person by nature, probably picked that up a bit through our chat. I moved from a private hospital in Wahroonga that was incredibly well resourced, probably a little bit spoilt, had a really fantastic philosophy of a holistic approach to nursing. So, I went from being what we call back in the olden days, a charge sister on a 30-bed ward with six staff. And then, when I moved to the Campbelltown local government area, I managed to secure a job at Camden Hospital and I became the charge sister there with one enrolled nurse on a 30-bed surgical medical ward.

Man, I just said, “If I can't do my job properly with high quality, I don't want to do it at all.” My father said to me, “Lindy, you'll absolutely regret it. Your mother and your sister have successful nursing careers.” My brother is a doctor. I just said, “You know what, Dad? Life's too short to be unhappy with what you're doing every day and I just need to go out and find something else.”

[00:04:51] My other passion in life was children and particularly people with disabilities. So, I jumped from there, and actually my very first job at Campbelltown City Council was as a registered nurse in the childcare centre setting, and I thought, “You beauty, get away from the shift work, get to work Monday to Friday, predictable hours. How good is this?”. But government very quickly realised they couldn't afford registered nurses in childcare centres. [chuckles] It was only a maternity leave physician, I then jumped across to Greenacre and helped set up a community childcare centre over there. And a position came back up in council working with children with additional needs across the whole LGA. So, children from diverse cultural backgrounds, Aboriginal backgrounds, and children with disability and help to help them be included holistically in a childcare setting.

[00:05:40] By then, I'd had my first child, so it was a part time role at the time, I jumped back in, and I also did a period of work while I was doing that with Mater Dei, which is a disability school in the Camden LGA, did a lot of work in in their social setting. And, yeah, I went from there and I've done multiple jobs, had the privilege of doing multiple jobs throughout the council. I think that's probably where my passion for the community came from, because I was working hands-on in the community, worked a lot with the Aboriginal community. And, yeah, I don’t know, opportunities just kept coming up. I was silly enough to keep putting my hand up. [laughs] So, here I am.

Michael: [00:06:18] You're giving me the tinkles here, because I'm new to public service officially, in a sense, it's only six months for me, and just having you describe your background is really useful context to, I guess, understand it has been a lot a lifetime almost of service to an area of Sydney, I guess, that has a diverse community. There's a lot geographical diversity you have covered there between Greenacre, Camden, Campbelltown, obviously. But it also has helped me contextualize what I'm going to talk to you about today a little bit, which is, and I think some 25 years later, potentially, I think from your first day at Campbelltown, you find us here. You've overseen the delivery of Reimagining Campbelltown, is that the name of the document, have I got it right?

Lindy: [00:06:55] Yep, that's it.

Michael: [00:06:56] There's a bit I want to chat to you a little bit about because the Reimagine Campbelltown piece, but then there's also the Western Sydney, Western--

Lindy: [00:07:03] Parkland City?

Michael: [00:07:04] Yeah. Western Parkland City. Can you just explain the Western Parkland City? Where is it? What is it? And how did the areas of Campbelltown and other areas around form or connect to a future city?

Lindy: [00:07:16] Look, I had the privilege of getting involved with the Western Parkland City at its inception. When Greater Sydney Commission was working out, it's a three-city model, we had the opportunity of joining a city deal with seven other local government areas, which was quite unheard of, probably first, very complex city deal arrangement in Australia. We started with this journey with state and federal government, where the conversation was, “Okay, we are all on equal standing here. We all have the opportunity to learn from one another. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of a 24-hour airport being built in our region. Let's join hands and make the most of that opportunity for our communities and create a very special region that people can be proud of, but also one that we can shine the light on in terms of creation of jobs, economy, and absolute pure recreation,” which I don't think the rest of Sydney really truly understands what is out there in that Western Parkland City.

[00:08:25] So, yeah, very privileged to have that opportunity and to work incredibly closely with the other seven local government areas, and with state and federal government, which we're continuing today. I think, in the early days, we were meeting three, four times a week. The mayors would meet once a week of an evening. As you can tell, we've learned a lot from one another in terms of collaboration, appreciating each other's strengths and challenges, and being able to weave that into a really fantastic story of what a great region we have to celebrate and share with the rest of the world.

Michael: [00:09:00] How does the Western Parkland City sit with Penrith, Liverpool, Parramatta, and Campbelltown? Is that a subset of it?

Lindy: [00:09:07] No. It's not actually. The oddball out there is Parramatta. Parramatta is obviously the heart of the central city. Penrith, Liverpool and Campbelltown are the three metropolitan city centres of the Western Parkland City. The remaining LGA form the region in full, but in terms of metropolitan city centre definition, it is Campbelltown, Liverpool and Penrith.

Michael: [00:09:30] Yeah, that's good to understand. What I'm teasing out here a little bit is just the potential of collaboration and thinking that's gone into how to essentially leverage existing assets as you're creating new assets and then also regional LGAs to bring together in time, and I think 2036 is a number that keeps coming up in my research that should give rise to huge economic benefits, but also citizen benefits and also hopefully benefits for businesses looking to participate and grow into the region. Would you agree?

Lindy: [00:09:58] Yeah, absolutely. I neglected in mentioning that obviously, the fourth major city centre that will be built is Bradfield. That will be obviously the heart and centre in terms of, it will be home to the Western Sydney Airport.

Michael: [00:10:12] I had the privilege of coming out and spending some time with you, when we were allowed to do that between the period where we weren't allowed to do it and now, but do you want to just talk a little bit specifically around the Reimagining Campbelltown City Centre Master Plan? I'm thinking about all the thinking that you may have been able to take into that in what is an area that has quite a lot of historical context, obviously. And then on top of it is now going to see this period of mass transformation. It'd be helpful to understand how Lindy Deitz looks at Campbelltown on a daily basis and things. How is what we have here today going to change and are we ready for change?

Lindy: [00:10:46] Yeah, okay. Look, it was a bit of an interesting journey. And as you possibly already know, coming from a community services background is quite rare for a general manager/CEO in local government land, it tends to be a planner or an accountant or an engineer or one of those industries. I was actually the first woman to be a General Manager in Campbelltown as well. So, I think I've broken all the rules, I have done everything. I was dearly fond of the previous general manager, and as you can imagine, I worked for a very long time. Actually, in the time I've worked at Campbelltown, I've worked under two, absolutely fantastic, well regarded general managers, sadly both of whom have passed away.

But I guess, when I had the opportunity, and I was successful in getting the role, I have a very big point of difference, because for me, I didn't want to control the orchestra. I actually wanted to hear from the community exactly what they wanted. To be very honest, when I opened the cupboard, the cupboard was fairly big in terms of strategic visioning and direction, well, certainly to my satisfaction, anyway. We spent the first, oh, I think, 12 to 18 months, working with community, industry, and different parts of the sector and government to understand particularly what the vision was of the people, because it doesn't matter what my vision is. You don't put a vision on top of a community. The community actually needs to share with you what their dreams are. I had come from a period of time at Campbelltown where growth was not well regarded. We are the southern gateway into Sydney. We are very typically where country meets city, and people were really struggling with that concept of growth. They didn't want to grow, they didn't want to expand, they wanted to live in their big country town. So, that was quite difficult.

[00:12:43] I spent the first few years of my role, basically educating and talking with the community to say, “Well, listen, as a local government authority, we don't control the growth, and the growth is going to come whether you like it or not. We either join hands and help shape what that growth is going to look like, or we let it run over the top of us.” That's truly how I started the journey. We went out there and said, “Okay, if we face the reality that growth is coming, what is the absolute boundaries, what are the challenges? What are the opportunities? What do you want out of the growth that we can advocate for?”. So, we came out with a vision, the community's vision, and I'm really proud of that, because I can say very genuinely to you, it is the community's vision.

[00:13:29] We then platformed from there into developing our master plan, and it's not any ordinary master plan if you've got to put a community flavor to it, so it can't just be all this boring academic, planning material. It's got to be real and genuine. We wanted to actually define what those opportunities were that were most meaningful for our community. I'm really proud-- a lot of the words that are used in terms of our pillars and the wording in there, are actually our community's words. So, things like they want no gray to be seen, and what that means to our community is that they really cherish the fact that we are a green city. We are in fact, fun point, Australia's first green city. We're nestled in a valley between two rivers, the Georges and the Nepean. We have the beautiful scenic hills to one side, and we have the Dharawal National Park. So, they treasure that. They really treasure their open space, their trees, their paths, their rivers, they celebrate it all. And so they didn't want to compromise that.

[00:14:34] We know that in the urbanisation of Campbelltown, we need to keep the green environment components. Don't then neglect the fact that we are suffering that heat island effect, that Western Sydney does suffer, so it makes sense anyway, but it's actually the true dream and vision of the city. It was quite a lengthy body of work. We worked again through hands on, it was in the time where you could meet face-to-face with the community. So, we were doing workshops with the community, workshops with industry, workshops with government. Just to add a little bit of fun into it, the Greater Sydney Commission were doing-- and I don't know if you heard of them, but they were doing collaboration areas at that time. They started with Liverpool and Penrith, obviously, because there was great opportunity due to their closeness to the Western Sydney Airport. Basically, a collaboration area is where state government sits and helps facilitate all the opportunities of that metropolitan city centre by bringing all the state agencies to the table, so that we can cross across silos of agencies, both in local government and state government, and actually all work together towards a common goal.

My poor staff, I think they thought I was just stark raving crazy, because the Greater Sydney Commission said, “Okay, Campbelltown, it's your turn to do collaboration,” and we were well on the way with Reimagining Campbelltown. So, we were really stretched with resources. But you know what? I really feel, Michael, at the end of the day, it was actually meant to be, because what it actually did was they complemented one another. So, that beauty of being able to work so closely with the state government agencies and help share with them what we were uncovering through our master planning journey has absolutely aligned the stars. And we know our time is now, so we're really excited about what we can do.

Michael: [00:16:29] I'm keen to hopefully shed some light on the challenges in pulling together a master plan. I'm looking at a little bit in the context of trying to work with councils specifically around their 24-hour economy strategies, and experience tends to teach that stakeholder alignment is pretty important as one key objective of delivering a 24-hour economy. Is it similar with developing the master plan for the City of Campbelltown?

Lindy: [00:16:54] Our master plan is a little bit different from your traditional master plan. It's probably more like a spatial business plan, because what we have in it is a strategic context and vision. The really important part of our master plan is, we'll put a place framework. Our enduring commitment to six growth pillars, we have 25 commitments that capture the community's values and underpin every decision in the city centre . And then, we have our delivery framework, which we have 10 city-making moves that describe the outcomes for the city centre to be able to unlock its potential, and that obviously is a living document because it will be refreshed as every change hits us.

Michael: [00:17:35] I'm looking at some of the stats, and these interest me, particularly, its population, currently about 180,000, 25% of residents aged 0 to 17. This is Campbelltown City specifically. 35%, aged 25 to 49. And then, you've also got a significant population that's born overseas, 26%, and then maybe 30% that speak a language other than English at home. I've got that right, have I?

Lindy: [00:17:59] Yeah. The only thing you missed was our significant Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander community. So, we have 5971 at the last census count, and it's growing. It's something we're incredibly proud of, is our Aboriginal community. So that's probably the only thing that we missed.

Michael: [00:18:17] You mentioned, the Aboriginal community has been, in comparative terms, significant. But is that relatively unique? Are there other LGAs that are similarly populated?

Lindy: [00:18:25] No. Look, we're one of the largest in New South Wales actually, we're up there in the top five, I think, last time I looked. So, I think that combined with the preservation of a lot of original land makes us-- our Dharawal land is very precious. So, I do think it does add to our uniqueness.

Michael: [00:18:45] I am a bit excited, and full disclosure, that I did go to school in Campbelltown as you know, and I grew up in Liverpool. In my job walking around the city, if you think back to that metaphor for the 24-hour economy of the Neon Grid and how Sydney lights up at night. I start looking at the world very much through the lens of what are the unique stories of place and people, and how can they be enabled? How can that storytelling be liberated rather than prescribed, if that makes sense? I know the answer to this, but you've essentially got a plan in place that has been shaped by the community for the community. And ideally, as Campbelltown goes through its transformation, the community continues to engage and is able to tell their story through civic participation. Is that fair?

Lindy: [00:19:29] I think that's really critical, yes. So, that is what I'm saying. It's incredibly important that as the demographics change, and they will, and they are, just the changes, for example, in our concentrated public housing estates as they are being redeveloped, is changing our demographics straightaway. Therefore, it is really critical that we get to know the new communities that are moving into Campbelltown and ensure that their visions are reflected in the broader strategic plan for the city.

I think that one thing that is really that I'm incredibly proud of with our master plan is that it's evidence based. I was very strong on the fact that it needed to sit upon evidence and data, so that when we were talking to government or industry, they could feel very confident and sure that what we were saying was actually in real terms, because I don't want to get onto a political conversation, but I didn't want to depend on politics, clearly, to be able to take the city forward. The city needed to move forward on its own terms, on its own strengths. So, everything that we've done is we've got that evidence base sitting underneath it. And part of that evidence base is that continual conversation with community, because if they're not part of it, they're not going to share the significant change that is absolutely going to happen over time.

Michael: [00:20:50] It's always the point of the podcast. I say that because in contrast, and I am no planner, but I think what you've suggested partly is that sometimes, master plans might be done from either specifically a planning-only perspective or an urbanist perspective. And then, I encounter this a little bit with my work as I think about the concept of top-down placemaking, as opposed to bottoms up, if that makes sense. I recite to people the story of Northumberland Street in Liverpool, how you can't suppress culture, because there's a council carpark at the end of Northumberland Street. This is going back some years, I think it might still be there. Of course, no one predicted the arrival of Fijian and Indian community, and that carpark will be turned into a festival site in time, because you can't-- well, you can, I suppose, suppress culture to some degree, but culture will find a way of surfacing.

What's key to the success of the 24-Hour Economy Strategy? I think partly to the success of your master plan, is that community engagement, and being led by the community, actually, I suppose that's probably the broadest way of putting that. I'm going to have this opportunity to ask this one. If you're someone listening from another council that has had a master plan or is working in a structure that has been driven predominantly by place as opposed to community, any guidance?

Lindy: [00:22:04] Look, I highly recommend the approach that we took. I certainly will own it to say that it was scary at times. You have to be fairly brave, and you have to be very open to what you're going to be told. But I'm a very big believer that part of consultation is actually sharing with people the facts and evidence and what sits in front of them. As human beings, we make our minds up in our opinions on things, but they're not often not based on fact. I actually find it's a sharing. When you share with somebody what the reality is, it actually helps shape their view, but also, they then contribute in a much more valuable way, because they're doing it from a context that is more realistic. I think that's the biggest part of community consultation, is being prepared to start from a platform of saying, “Well, hey, these are the things that are the non-negotiables not because we don't want to play nicely, it's just that this is legislation," or, "This is what we have control of," or, "This is what we don't have control of.”. When you base it from there, the conversation can be very open and honest. But you're actually educating each other on the way through.

[00:23:20] Now, I'm not saying that that was easy. There were times where it was really difficult. I do believe that it was worth the pain and it created a more cohesive outcome. And just the relationship building, just having our Aboriginal community there represented with some of our culturally diverse community.

Michael: [00:23:39] What I've observed is that you're better off having those conversations at the front end rather than something falling over at the back end because people weren't engaged or didn't agree. It's time spent upfront versus time spent in other processes later, perhaps.

Lindy: [00:23:51] Yeah, and I think that the heart of a city transformation for us, and this is why I think the placemaking was so important, is obviously amenity. Amenity is what's going to reimagine a place and make a place desirable for people to want to be. A person's experience of a city is key. I think the thing that motivates me and gets me really excited, is when I have-- we're really blessed. We have an amazing cultural arts centre in our city. We're very, very fortunate, but it's loved and owned by the community. It's not for the select few. It's absolutely loved by everybody in the community. And we’ll often do international, beautiful, incredible contemporary exhibitions. So, we often attract people from the inner city.

[00:24:42] I remember a very high senior bureaucrat pulling me aside at another meeting, they said to me, “Lindy, I came out to have a look at your latest exhibition and I hadn't been to Campbelltown for 20 years. My goodness, it was just incredible. But when I came out from the exhibition, I had a flat tire and I'm sort of crouching down on the ground trying to figure out what to do with my tire. This person came up to me and I looked at them in a panic to go, ‘Oh, my God, what are they doing?’ And the person said, ‘How can I help you? You look like you're stuck there?’” And he went on and told me the rest of the story, which I won't take up your time with but basically, he said, “I just felt like I was in a country town, and everybody wanted to help me.” I just said to him, “Yes, that's the beauty of Campbelltown. It has never really grown up in that sense.” The person's experience in the city makes a great difference to how you sell it and how you create it. I don't ever want to lose that in Campbelltown because I think that's a very precious component. But amenity is really critical for us, because people look down on us, quite frankly, with Campbelltown.

[00:25:49] We've done a lot of work also on our brand and our image. We didn't make us anything that we weren't though. Again, we took the community on the journey, I'll have to share with you our brand story. I love it. It's amazing. But it's about being real, but actually helping people respect and understand a place for what it is, and how beautiful it can be, rather than looking at it through a negative lens.

Michael: [00:26:15] Yeah. I think it's good to call out that particular elephant, if you don't mind me saying that, it is part of the landscape, isn't it? I guess, partly, if I'm being honest, what drew me to want to speak to you, as I commence this part of my role, because, for me, I've not been asked only to look after the City of Sydney or the CBD of Sydney. This is a cultural and economic blueprint for Greater Sydney and New South Wales beyond. And bringing these stories to life across the Metropolitan, which I know from personal experience, have a depth and a variety to them. I look very much as, I don't want to say this, but like almost an open goal, like, “Look at that. That's amazing, why can we have more of that?” I don't think I'm alone in that. I'm excited. And if I'm excited, then a lot of other people will be as well. Understanding the transformational aspect of the planning of not only Campbelltown city itself, but in the context of the Western Parkland City, is so important for our stakeholders more broadly, and particularly in industry to look at and say, “Well, what are the opportunities here? How can we be a participant in that story?”

Lindy: [00:27:15] It's why I like to come into the city and talk if I have an opportunity to come and talk to people in the city, peak organizations, great industries that are trying to promote Sydney. And that would be my challenge to you with the Neon Grid is, “Yeah, just let's just celebrate. It doesn't have to be the same.” One of the questions that you'd sent me in preparation was, what's the things that light up in my place, and I had to have a little giggle to myself because I don't have those. Our definition of nighttime economy is quite different from probably what most people would expect. But the sort of places that I take you to is go to our beautiful Georges River over an evening and see how many people just enjoy and celebrate the fact that they can see a platypus or a koala. It probably sounds a little bit corny, Michael, but that's our reality.

I talk a lot about the Australian Botanic Gardens. We share that with Camden. We don't talk about local government boundaries when it comes to the gardens because it's a wonderful state government asset. But many people in the city don't even know it exists, let alone understand its beauty, and I cheekily thought, “I'm just going to say to Michael, ‘Well, Michael help me with my cause of advocacy to help Denise just get that place lighten up," because you could do awesome nighttime activity at the Botanical Gardens, because it's just crazy. It's so wonderful. I think that for me, that's the diversity of the beauty, that is Sydney. I think it's great to advocate that it's okay that we're all different, that that's what makes us fun and exciting.

Michael: [00:28:56] And that is, in fact, the plan. And it's such a great story and I was hoping for something like that, because that's the point of difference, isn't it? That allows us to excite people from other parts of the city to come and visit and conversely tell stories for visitors to Sydney in time, where they're entering through the southern gateway or one of the others. Hey, it's been great chatting, and you've already done my last question.

Lindy: [00:29:17] Oh, sorry.

Michael: [00:29:18] Let me then finish the podcast with this question which I intend to ask all guests. COVID in Australia has a lot of challenges, but also opportunities to reimagine Sydney. What's one opportunity that excites you the most?

Lindy: [00:29:35] What COVID has thrown us is that people genuinely don't take things for granted anymore. For us, let me use my example of the Australian Botanic Gardens again. I was really concerned about how they were faring because every time I go to the gardens, it would be full of what I perceived as international tourists, very diverse cultures visiting, taking beautiful pictures, and all the rest of it. When COVID hit the first time, I have to tell you, their visitation increased by 30%. And that was by local community, celebrating and enjoying something that was in their own backyard. I think what COVID has thrown Campbelltown is that opportunity to sell itself as that quality life, that place to come and you can hear the birds singing, and you can have all of those peaceful things that if you're going to get in lockdown, what a beautiful place to be. If you can walk around, even if you're living in an apartment, we have so many parks and open spaces. For me, we will continue to celebrate that and use every opportunity.

[00:30:44] The other thing, if I can quickly add, is our High Street. Prior to the second lockdown, we'd been fortunate enough to get a million dollars for our High Street to do an experiment with the community and reduce parking and build all the beautiful, temporary parklets. The community were loving it, we were having cultural festivals and the whole works, and then we got hit again with COVID. But I'm excited to get back on to that, Michael, because I think that's what people really crave for, is that celebration in high streets and those opportunities to bring them to life where people can eat food together, and children can engage and play, and you can do all of those things. So, I think there's some blessings in COVID, and they're probably my top two.

Michael: [00:31:30] Well, Lindy, it's been an awesome afternoon chatting, and thanks for all the excitement, the passion, and the contribution that you're making beyond your own backyard to, I guess, the wider discourse of ideas sharing for what I hope is a growing number of people that are really committed, and I'm sure it is, seeing Sydney leap forward off the back off what's been a challenging year but into a brighter future. I have nothing left to do but say thank you for being the first guest on The Neon Grid.

Lindy: [00:31:55] Well, thank you very much for the opportunity. I never knock back an opportunity to talk about Campbelltown as you can tell.

Lindy: [00:32:04] So, thank you so much for your time. I'm really grateful.

[Music]

Michael: [00:32:09] Thanks for listening Neon Grid podcast. I hope you enjoy the episode. To get involved our efforts to Reimagine Sydney's 24-Hour Economy, sign up to the Neon Grid newsletter. You'll find that on the Investment NSW website, which is at investment.nsw.gov.au. Or hit the link in the show notes You can also follow me, your host, Michael Rodrigues, on LinkedIn. And as always, carpe noctem.

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