Breathing new life into Newcastle

2008-04-08 00:00

Well known for its industrial base, the city of Newcastle, which often falls off the national and provincial radar, is now on the verge of a retail boom that is set to transform fundamentally the character of what is currently the economic hub of northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The area is famous for being an industrial hub in the province, particularly in relation to steel, iron, synthetic rubber, chrome chemicals and textiles. However, according to the director of development and planning at the Newcastle Municipality, Kebone Masange, entrepreneurs and investors alike have woken up to the opportunities presented by a consumer base of several hundred thousand people.

Chief among these retail developments is Century Mall — hailed as northern KwaZulu-Natal’s largest shopping centre. Commentators argue that this development has the potential to influence Newcastle’s economy in the same way that regional malls have influenced other parts of the province.

According to the signage posted around the vicinity of the proposed venue, the 21 000 square metre Century Mall will boast more than 120 shops, major national tenants, cinemas, restaurants and 1 500 parking bays. The mall — which is set to open later this year — will be located near an existing upmarket casino and hotel complex that has already entrenched itself as a key feature of the Newcastle area’s entertainment scene.

It is understood that the new mall development will lend strong impetus to the Allen Street “mixed-use corridor” that consists of auto dealerships and other businesses, all located within the area around the casino and the mall.

Masange says a critical element of Newcastle’s overall current growth phase relates to the wellbeing of the central business district (CBD). In this regard, a whole node of the CBD is undergoing an impressive rejuvenation. Phase two of Amajuba Mall has been launched, boasting national tenants, and it is understood that an extension of the Victorian Mall is being planned.

In addition, he says, the Village Walk shopping centre also recently underwent an expansion and a facelift.

Perhaps the most critical development of all relates to the proposed Sithole Mall, which is at the conceptual stage.

According to Masange, the mall is part of an effort to develop a node (consisting of Blaawbosch, Madadeni and Osizweni) that has largely been neglected in the past. He says the municipality has already put in place the necessary infrastructure (such as access roads) and services in order to facilitate this move, which has been likened to the Bridge City initiative in KwaMashu.

While many of the Blaawbosch, Madadeni and Osizweni area’s residents are poor, Masange argues that a fair number of (employed) residents spend their money in other parts of the northern KwaZulu-Natal region.

The idea is to construct a shopping centre that will create jobs while enabling residents with buying power to shop at their convenience in their own area — should they wish to do so. It is estimated that about 220 000 people live in Blaawbosch, Madadeni and Osizweni. Thus, the majority of Newcastle’s total population lives in this area, which covers about 6 175 hectares.

Masange said that the municipality views the development as part of its urban renewal programme.

Another development that deserves attention is Taxi City, which was completed in the middle of last year. A major national retailer is the anchor tenant and a number of smaller shops have also been established within the centre.

Masange says this R20 million development has contributed significantly to the local economy, while also giving this portion of the CBD a facelift.

Critically, public sector investment has also begun to come on line.

Local government stakeholders are in the process of initiating a consolidation of municipal offices at one venue. In addition, the municipality has already invested in new road infrastructure in the previously neglected areas.

In drawing attention to the retail explosion in Newcastle, one should not lose sight of the anchor sectors in the region as a whole.

Major industrial projects set to be undertaken in the area include the Newcastle Works capacity expansion project — R340 million for giant steel producer ArcelorMittal South Africa. It is understood that the project — which is currently moving into the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) stage — is expected to kick off late next year.

There is also the possibility that Newcastle may be home to a proposed soya bean-based biodiesel production plant, a joint venture between Sasol, the Central Energy Fund (CEF) and Siyanda Biodiesel.

• Kebone Masange, strategic executive director of development and planning at the Newcastle Municipality, holds a master’s degree in project management, having initially completed a BSc Honours degree in rural and urban planning. He has been at the helm of town planning in Newcastle since 1997. Having entrenched himself in this field of expertise, Masange has been involved in a number of low-cost housing developments in the Newcastle area over the years. He has also driven home a number of key spatial and development plans. However, he exhibits an impressive and infectious flair for economic development issues and is at the forefront of a move to better position Newcastle as a prime destination for investment. “Newcastle is a city that is endowed with the black diamond, that is coal, and the future of Newcastle now lies in resuscitating the mining activity in this sector in light of the opportunities presented by the energy sector both home and abroad. Intensifying our industrial base will create more employment and it will also make the retail developments more sustainable.”

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