Notre damned

“NO more Notre Dame,” reads the huge banner on a High Street building just around the corner from the boutique university.

The two-finger salute was put up by landlord Julie Morgan, who is furious the uni has purchased the nearby Customs House on Phillimore Street.

She says the acquisition will hinder commercial growth in the West End, and it’s impossible for businesses to compete with the uni on land purchases, because it’s exempt from paying rates—in this case $270,000 a year for the Customs House—or stamp duty.

“It seems like they are land banking,” Ms Morgan says.

“They are driving other businesses out. The only people able to purchase property are them,” she says, adding she might join the exodus of businesses who have left Fremantle in recent years.

She claims someone slipped  into her building on Wednesday, climbed the stairs, and standing on her furniture, tore down part of the banner.

It is located above Ms Morgan’s tenants, including High St Dispensary, Tamara Yoga and Fremantle Pharmacy, and while she’s worried they might also face a backlash, she says it’s important her message is heard.

“It’s my building,” she says firmly.

• Julie Morgan’s anti-Notre Dame banner on High Street is just around the corner from the boutique university. Photo by Molly Schmidt

Ms Morgan says Notre Dame’s expansion has led to un-utilised ground floor spaces and closed courtyards rather than customer-friendly attractions, and this had cost her several tenants in the past.

“The community is dwindling, as after hours there is no one down here,” she says.

“Notre Dame is around during the day for two thirds of the year. A community can’t survive let alone thrive.”

She says a nearby business has to close during the uni’s summer holidays, because without staff or students there’s no business.

Direct breach

“She’ll have rent to pay, but she’s not operating day-to-day business,” Ms Morgan says.

“Some people say the students give a big amount because they frequent the shops; well I know lots of shop owners and they say to me ‘students don’t come in, they can’t afford it’.”

Ms Morgan says the purchase is a direct breach of the memorandum of understanding the uni signed with Fremantle council, which encourages Notre Dame to expand throughout the CBD and not immediately adjacent to its existing buildings in the heritage-listed West End.

NDU vice chancellor Celia Hammond says apart from the Christmas and New Year shutdown, the uni is open.

“We have staff —we have summer term,” she says.

“Yes, numbers in January are smaller, but go anywhere in the world over summer and you will probably see a similar scenario.”

Prof Hammond says NDU has accepted Freo council’s encouragement to expand throughout the CBD and has actively looked at a much wider area, up to the hospital precinct.

“No such properties we have looked at have, as yet, been suitable for us to satisfy the obligations we owe our students, particularly in terms of accessibility, or have not been within our commercial parameters, both financially and time wise,” she says.

Ms Morgan feels the council hasn’t held NDU accountable for regular breaches of the MOU, but  Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt says that’s tricky because it’s a non-binding document.

“They are not intended to be enforceable,” he says.

“While I’m disappointed the purchase of Customs House contravenes our MOU with Notre Dame, the MOU is delivering some good outcomes—such as ground floor activation of Notre Dame’s buildings in the West End.

“I will continue to encourage Notre Dame to speed up this process and open up more of their buildings for commercial use.”

Dr Pettitt says the city has been getting $270,000 a year in rates for Customs House.

“How that may change in the future will depend on what the buildings are used for,” he told the Herald.

Prof Hammond says Notre Dame voluntarily gives the council cash each year for agreed expenditure in the West End.

“We also pay rates on any buildings we utilise for commercial activities, including those leased to other businesses,” she says. “Any purchase of property we have made has been on a commercially, legally and ethically appropriate basis.

“Whether vendors have approached other potential buyers or gone to market is a matter for them to discern and decide.”

by MOLLY SCHMIDT

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