Known and admired by many, restaurateur Neil Slater has always been a very keen and vocal supporter of Newcastle. While he is not short of ideas himself, Neil has always demonstrated a willingness to support others in making Newcastle a better place for all.
Growing up in Waratah West as the eldest of five children, Neil was schooled at Marist Brothers in Hamilton before attending teachers college and qualifying as a teacher in 1978. After deciding that teaching was not for him, he entered the world of hospitality working as a waiter and barman at various bars and restaurants including 5 years in Thredbo – determined to one day have his own restaurant.
At the age of 30 Neil met his wife Donna Davis and a great combination was formed. In 1987, they left Thredbo to return to Newcastle where he and Donna bought a house and with enough equity in their home – thanks to escalating house prices at the time, were able to open their own restaurant – Scratchleys On The Wharf . Today Donna and Neil have three children Jackson 23, Elkie 21 and Zac 17.
Neil and I caught up over a cup of coffee (a hot chocolate for him) to discuss the various projects - the wins and the losses - that he has been involved in and his views on the future direction of this city he loves so much.
As the owner of one of Newcastle’s finest dining spots, how did it all come about, how did you manage to secure such a fantastic location for Scratchleys On The Wharf?
In 1987 alfresco dining in Newcastle was one of the fastest growing dining trends and with the Queens Wharf at the time doing so well, I just knew that the foreshore was the place to be. At that time they were moving the Stockton Ferry Terminal, so I made a few inquiries and learned that the site was going out for tender. Fortunately I managed to win the tender (which I also helped write) and Scratchleys was opened in 1989.
Was Scratchley then very much like we see it now?
No – not at all. In hindsight, we developed the old Ferry Terminal with more enthusiasm than capability and the end result was a ferry terminal masquerading as a restaurant.
Then in 1999, ten years after it first opened, we renovated Scratchleys and reopened it as it is today. A year later we won an award for the Most Energy Efficient building in Australia at the Master Builders Awards. I am now working on a DA to improve things for diners and further enhance its environmental footprint.
Let’s talk about some of the projects you have been involved in over the years. In 2003 you won a tender to develop Nobby’s Lighthouse with a restaurant and boutique style hotel accommodation. And yet the site still sits idle.
For the past 100 years Nobby’s Lighthouse has been unmanned and pretty much redundant - a result of technological advancement. After years of lobbying (and $320,000 later) to put the building out to tender, I finally won the battle gaining state and federal approval for the project in the process. Unfortunately the then Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett over-ruled his Department in 2008 without consulting anyone involved. Today the site remains pretty much unused – an unsustainable situation.
That must have been unbelievably disappointing for you after putting in so much work and also spending so much money during the process. What happened next?
Frustrated and somewhat deflated, I then threw my efforts into another project and that was to bring OzHarvest to Newcastle. Working on OzHarvest was a welcome distraction and a far better alternative to becoming all bitter and twisted over Nobby’s.
I often see OzHarvest vans travelling around Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. What is Oz Harvest and what is your involvement?
OzHarvest is an amazing charity established in 2004 to collect excess and unwanted food, and redistribute it to people in need. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that now distributes approximately 120,000 meals a month to more than 165 charities. The vans collect excess food, fresh produce and
unsold fresh meals from restaurants and catering companies across Sydney, Canberra, Newcastle and Wollongong.
I only became involved after listening to a presentation from Ronni Kahn – the founding Director of OzHarvest (and who I consider to be a saint) talk about food wastage as well as the social and environmental impact of this wastage, and what could and should be done. I thought I was well positioned and sufficiently connected to be able to make a difference, so with the assistance of Leonie Young became involved in bringing it to Newcastle. In 2010, OzHarvest opened for business in Newcastle and has since served well over 2.5million meals!
This is an environmental and socially just cause and it just makes total sense – not only is it a significant environmental response, but it feeds people in need and it has measurable outcomes – delivering a meal for just 25c when the national average is twice that amount. The reality is that it reduces the need for charities to purchase food and instead enables them to use the money elsewhere. In other words, by giving them the fish, they can then use the money more effectively to teach the needy to fish. A great concept!
But I do not want to take the credit for the success of OzHarvest. There are far smarter and more capable people than me out there. Let’s face it, anybody can come up with an idea or even improve on an idea. In reality, it’s those people that actually make it happen that are the really smart ones. The secret to success is to include very capable and smart people in these types of projects and let them get on with it. Without people like Leonie Young, Monique Maguire and Shane Johns, OzHarvest in Newcastle would not be successful.
Another successful project that paid off, after years of effort and dogged determination is the Memorial Walk, which makes up part of Bathers Way. What were the challenges here – and how were they overcome?
There were many, many challenges but the biggest was no doubt the raising of $4.8 million to build the Memorial Walk. It must be said that the former member for Newcastle – Tim Owen was instrumental in sourcing $3 million in funding for the project.
My thoughts were that it was an unbelievably good project – but the walkway needed to maintain a view of the ocean for it to be truly great. The issue was money. I involved everyone I could think of – Jodi McKay, the then member for Newcastle and also John Tate. Long-time friend – former class mate and collaborator, architect Barney Collins then drew up the designs for the bridge. After months of frustration and getting nowhere, I eventually received a phone call from Tim Owen who loved the idea and was determined to make this project happen. He then approached BHP Billiton in Melbourne and gained a $3million contribution to the project. Newcastle City Council agreed to contribute $1.5 million.
What of Newcastle and the years ahead? What of Newcastle’s tourism offering?
I am firm in my belief that Newcastle should expect more for itself. After all, Newcastle is a significant contributor to the State’s GDP and therefore deserves nothing less than the best there is. We deserve and should accept nothing less.
What we build and improve on has to be good for Newcastle now and well into the future and of course for tourism. But, tourism has been a slow and frustrating journey for Newcastle, which has been overshadowed by the success of Hunter Valley Wine Country as a popular tourism destination.
However, having said that, I believe that Newcastle now has the critical mass to make tourism work. Newcastle had a brief burst of energy in the tourism sector during the post BHP days – the period between 1997 and 2000, but fell off the radar once the city recognised that it was going to survive the closure of BHP and therefore tourism did not get the attention it deserves.
Unfortunately, despite having a great deal to offer the tourist, Newcastle has a relatively small and under developed tourism industry and is therefore unable to compete for the dollar for dollar funding model that is currently in place. The reality is that the funding model really needs to be adapted if the state is going to take tourism seriously.
What learnings should we take from those projects that have been passed in and those that have gone ahead?
When it comes to learnings – we need to learn from other cities in countries far more established than ourselves. When you travel to other countries around the world with histories far older than ours, you see just how they have made use of their ancient buildings – be they forts, castles, ancient homes, etc. This is an effective and adaptive use of assets.
It’s frustrating to see so many beautiful and iconic buildings in Newcastle going to waste instead of getting involved in Public, Private Partnerships (PPP) which would allow us to more effectively preserve them - retain the building and with it our local history and heritage. The Lighthouse is one example, but so is the Post Office. The solution is PPP – after all it’s happening in every other part of the world. So why can’t it happen here?
These old facilities are expensive to retain and maintain and they therefore need a sustainable business inside them to be viable. The challenge for Newcastle is to get our head into that space.
Merewether Baths is an excellent example of heritage and technology coming together. The pool is an absolute asset to the city and now has a sophisticated pump system – pumping out clear and clean water. Now we just need to redevelop the pavilion and make it a self-sustaining option.
Merewether Surf House is another classic example. The Surf house as it currently stands is a result of 20 years of debate which resulted in what it is today. Look how well it is working, it’s just a pity that it took so long to get there. You can consider that lost opportunity.
Do you see an extension to Bathers Way Walk – linking Merewether to Burwood ever happening? Do you support the concept?
This is all about re-opening the three old mining tunnels between Merewether and Burwood beaches and, much like the Bondi-to-Coogee path, this would be a wonderful way to extend the Bathers Way Walk. This would allow people to walk from Fernleigh Track to Nobby’s – a distance of approximately 21 kilometres.
In reality this is not a new idea - but yes it is definitely worth pursuing. I don’t want to own the idea or even be the person who comes up with the idea, I just want to be a part of it and applaud the end result.Of course there will be the doubters, those that claim there is no money or that it is impossible and cannot be done. Yes it’s going to be expensive but given the significance of the tunnels to the coal mining industry – perhaps we can secure mining sector funding.
As for whether it could be done - well we have access to the best mining and tunnelling experts in the country, if not the world, to call on to answer that question.Personally, I support the project, and like the Memorial Walk,I would prefer to keep the ocean in view instead of taking the walk underground and going through tunnels.
Will the recent success of Memorial Walk help in gaining support?
Nothing breeds success like success. After the success of Merewether Surf House and the Memorial Walk project – we need to capitalise on this success and keep the energy up.We are on this big verge of change and we need to use it to embrace tourism. It is up to us to make this wonderful city of ours a better place to live.I want the world to see Newcastle and what we have here. With our ability to send and share images all over the world at the press of a button we can communicate to the world exactly what we have in our own backyard. Let’s also show the world and the rest of the country that Newcastle has a history of getting things done and that they should come and visit and see what we have and can do.Let’s face it – when you consider the lifestyle, the environment, the natural beauty and abundance of facilities available to us, there is no nicer place on this earth to live.
At least we can all agree on that…
OzHarvest is the first perishable food rescue organisation in Australia collecting quality excess food from commercial outlets and delivering it, direct and free of charge, to 600 charities providing much needed assistance to vulnerable men, women and children across all major cities, including Newcastle.
OzHarvest is the only food rescue organisation in Australia collecting surplus food from all types of food providers including fruit and vegetable markets, supermarkets, hotels, wholesalers, farmers, stadiums, corporate events, catering companies, shopping centres, delis, cafes, restaurants, film and TV shoots and boardrooms.
OzHarvest was founded in November 2004 by Ronni Kahn, who was named Australia’s Local Hero of the Year in 2010.
In 2005, Kahn together with pro-bono lawyers lobbied the state governments to amend legislation to allow potential food donors to donate surplus food to charitable organisations.
The Civil Liabilities Amendment Act was passed in NSW in 2005 which ensured surplus food could be donated to charitable causes without fear of liability.
Neil Slater and Leonie Young brought OzHarvest to Newcastle in 2010. Since then, OzHarvest Newcastle has served in excess of 2.5million meals!