$270m plan to rejuvenate Freo

Sunday Times

4th November 2018


After buying the former Myer building in 2011, and then watching his anchor tenant walk two years later, Sirona Capital managing director Matt McNeilly has had a front row seat to Fremantle’s economic atrophy.

So bad is the malaise — and the prevalence of shuttered store fronts — that in June Fremantle council voted to investigate hiking rates for the owners of vacant shops in a bid to force them to drop rents.

That measure comes as the city centre’s commercial vacancies hover stubbornly around 10 per cent and visitors to Fremantle’s once-bustling Kings Square are more likely to run into beggars than bargains.

But if the man injecting $220 million into the long overdue redevelopment of the Fremantle city centre is to be believed, both its reputation and its bustle are on the cusp of a comeback.

“There is not a lot wrong with Fremantle but this part of town has just been allowed to decay,” Mr McNeilly said. “I suspect there is a whole range of reasons it died but the containerisation of the port (beginning in the late 1960s) had been a big part of that.

“That meant less people involved in port activities and office tenants moving out that just haven’t been replaced. Originally this was the heart of the commercial precinct of Fremantle.”

Now Mr McNeilly is performing a heart transplant as part of the $270 million Kings Square Renewal.

The operation was made possible by a big assist from the State Government, which set the ball rolling when it committed to leasing all 21,000sqm of office space being created to house 1500 public sector workers from the relocated Department of Communities.

The City of Fremantle is also splashing $50 million on a revamped administration building and library — a major outlay, but books and council meetings have never been known to draw a crowd.

That is where Sirona Capital’s deep pockets and Mr McNeilly’s ambitious take on a quintessentially Fremantle shopping experience come in.

FOMO Freo bills itself as “the weaving together of art, architecture, culture, retail, food and experience and all that is Fremantle into a rhythm of restlessness”.

Listening to Mr McNeilly explain, one thing is clear: this is not Garden City by the sea. Rather, FOMO Freo is an attempt to capture the excitement, energy and “every time is different” feel of a sprawling street market in a bricks-and-mortar setting.

“I see this as the antithesis to your traditional shopping centre which kind of feels the same every time you are in there,” Mr McNeilly said. “We recognise that experience is now what the consumer wants. In fact they almost want that first and foremost, and then hopefully they get their wallets out of their pockets to shop a little bit too.”

To achieve that, FOMO Freo will blend together a series of distinct but seamlessly connected areas.

The Emporium, inside the old ground floor and basement level of the Myer store and containing a mix of retailers, food outlets and bars, anchors the main building.

Meandering along one side is the food stall-filled Street Alley, which will place an emphasis on Asian cuisines — considered Fremantle’s “missing food piece” by Mr McNeilly.

Tree-canopied Tidal Lane provides an opportunity to catch your breath while taking in live music or browsing the planned rotation of pop-up stores.

A collection of maker spaces will allow local artists both to create and show off their wares, while aptly named The Daily will cater to shoppers’ more practical day-to-day needs.

On tenants, of whom there will be between 30 and 40, Mr McNeilly is remaining tight-lipped but he did indicate he would draw on what had proved successful during the building’s interlude as a shared space for local entrepreneurs as part of the MANY project.

“You had a really interesting mix of juice bars and barbers and hairdressers and fashion and hat makers —places that couldn’t necessarily afford the rents to have their own places elsewhere but in a collective environment they were able to,” he said.

“There will be elements of that that ultimately survive into FOMO because that is where we got the idea around artisans, people making things before your eyes.”

The optimism around FOMO Freo, and the influx of 1500 Monday-to-Friday workers in the floors above, is not confined to the offices of Sirona Capital either.

Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt views the project as the catalyst that will turn around the fortunes of his city’s flagging retail sector.

“At the heart of the challenges Fremantle has faced over the last couple of decades is we have become three-day-a-week economy,” said.

“You can’t run a city on three days a week and bringing all these office workers back in repositions Fremantle as a proper activity centre and not just a great weekend entertainment precinct.”

Fremantle Chamber of Commerce chief executive Olwyn Williams said the city’s low residential density was close to static and meant boosting the local workforce and enticing more visitors was crticial for the local economy.

“The centre of Fremantle’s CBD has been lacklustre for decades and some sparkle is long overdue,” she said.

“Getting 1500 new workers into the CBD begins the push for the Fremantle CBD to reclaim a seven-day-a-week economy. Just having a construction workforce in the immediate precinct has increased the potential market for food and beverage outlets.”