Dear Notre Dame, We need to talk

HANNAH FITZHARDINGE is a Fremantle councillor.

THIS year will mark the 30 year anniversary of the inauguration of Notre Dame University in Fremantle. 

There’s a lot to like about the 30 years of coexistence Notre Dame has had with Fremantle. Heritage buildings have been beautifully restored and tens of thousands of students have had the chance to get to know and love our fair city, while gaining a high quality tertiary education.

‘University Towns’ are known around the world for being fun, affordable and quirky – so having Notre Dame as part of our identity also helps Freo’s brand as a destination.

Notre Dame means students in the cafes and bars, and activity on the streets – to the extent that during term time, some retailers report a 35 per cent increase in business. Some students use paid parking, which is good for City coffers. 

And as we focus on the future industries for Fremantle, there are huge opportunities for knowledge economy  growth and research through university-industry-government partnerships – particularly in the innovation and  creative industries sectors.

But here’s the rub. It’s fairly well known that there are a number of things that make the economics of Fremantle a bit difficult. 

You see, most of our neighbouring local governments have some rather different (and arguably easier) operating conditions. Larger rate bases, developer contribution schemes, newer infrastructure and far fewer heritage buildings. Business districts that rely on local customers only – not tourists – to survive. 

And where they contain universities (which are exempt from rates under the Local Government Act) those universities operate like mini-local governments themselves, taking responsibility for their own roads, footpaths, parking, landscaping and so on. 

Since Notre Dame was first established, it has had a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Fremantle. Under this MOU, Notre Dame has contributed $75,000 a year, for many years, to the City for projects that are ‘mutually beneficial’ to both parties – usually in the public spaces immediately adjoining the Notre Dame campus. The last MOU expired at the end of 2019, and a revised MOU hasn’t yet been agreed. 

$75,000. No, there’s not a zero missing. This amount was agreed in the 1990s and hasn’t changed since, not even to meet CPI increases, effectively decreasing every year. While this contribution is of course welcome, it unfortunately falls far short of the cost to the City for many years, to the City for projects that are ‘mutually beneficial’ to both parties – usually in the public spaces immediately adjoining the Notre Dame campus. The last MOU expired at the end of 2019, and a revised MOU hasn’t yet been agreed. 

$75,000. No, there’s not a zero missing. This amount was agreed in the 1990s and hasn’t changed since, not even to meet CPI increases, effectively decreasing every year. While this contribution is of course welcome, it unfortunately falls far short of the cost to the City in lost rates as Notre Dame continues to expand its footprint throughout the West End. Since 2017, the purchase of properties by Notre Dame has resulted in a reduction in rates gathered by the City of $716,000 per annum. That’s enough to fund the City’s annual contribution to the CAT service – at pre-COVID service levels!

The previous MOU also had some other interesting clauses – that Notre Dame should spread its campus beyond the West End, that it should build (affordable) student accommodation in Fremantle to meet the agreed MOU target of 50 per cent of its students being housed in Fremantle, and that it ensure street activation at the ground floor level of buildings they own. 

Since I was first elected to Council, almost five years ago, it has been a perennial question from people I meet out and about in Freo. Why doesn’t Notre Dame pay rates? Is it fair that they don’t, when others have to? Is what they contribute to our community and economy worth it?

With the opportunity to negotiate a new MOU ahead of us, it’s time that we listen to the community and ask, is this MOU serving us well? Or do we need a re-set? At the City of Freo, we’re optimistic that new leadership at the University will herald a new era of constructive co-operation.

Opportunities abound for better collaboration. So let’s bounce around some ideas, to get the conversation started. Notre Dame could divest in one of their West End buildings and invest in a facility in the hospital/oval redevelopment precinct, to bring their medical and sports-related courses across town to a custom-built location, giving their students amazing opportunities to work with elite sportspeople and connect more closely to the work of Fremantle Hospital. 

Notre Dame could undertake an analysis of CAT bus use, to determine the extent to which their students make up the patronage, and agree to co-fund the service to a commensurate amount. Other universities, such as Edith Cowan University in Joondalup, contribute to services for their students that also benefit the community, such as the Joondalup CAT bus. 

They could diversify their income streams by leasing out more ground floors of their West End buildings – with the additional benefit of activating the streets. 

And longer term, they could invest in getting students spread out beyond the West End by committing to student accommodation – from what I hear, student housing is currently available for only 1 per cent of Notre Dame students, and there are developers who would be very willing partners to deliver such a project.

So it’s time for a good, open dialogue with the Freo community, Notre Dame. Let’s talk about an entirely new Memorandum of Understanding – one that sets us on a positive and mutually beneficial path, for the next 30 years.

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