Former MasterChef contestant Reece Hignell opened his cafe Cake Boi in Hamilton three months ago. He had considered The Junction, New Lambton and Mayfield.
He wanted a "bustling area" with "a suburban feel".
He landed both on Lindsay Street, off Hamilton's shopping and dining strip of Beaumont Street, and business couldn't be better.
Mr Hignell is one of 32 businesses to have opened in the suburb's business district in the past year. It's evolving, and a group of operators are working behind the scenes to improve it. The Newcastle Herald recently visited Beaumont Street to speak with traders about the change.
Like most business districts, Hamilton took a hit when the coronavirus took hold in Australia last March.
Monthly expenditure in Hamilton and the surrounding suburbs of Hamilton South, North and East fell to $2.7 million in April 2020, according to economic activity figures provided by Newcastle council, derived from card transaction data.
It was about a third of what was spent in February ($7.9 million). But as the year went on, things slowly improved. In December, expenditure totalled $11.8 million, compared to $7.5 million in the same month a year earlier.
While the expenditure increase eclipsing pre-COVID levels could be attributed to a range of factors, including government stimulus measures, councillor Carol Duncan believes as a consequence of the pandemic people are choosing to spend more time in their own neighbourhoods. It's an opinion traders agree with.
Mr Hignell credits the Hamilton Business Improvement Association for enticing him to the suburb. "They heard I wanted to do it," he said. "They sent me a list of vacant shops, walked me around, helped with my lease, spoke to the real estate and linked me up with the The Small Business Centre."
The BIA's chair Janice Musumecisaid Cake Boi was one example of how the association's work to "efficiently promote spaces to businesses interested in moving into our precinct" had paid off.
"We want long and successful tenancies," she said. "It is important to ensure new business are aware of the Hamilton advantage and we welcome them into our village so they feel supported, including 60 hours of advice from the business centre."
However, while 32 businesses have opened in the suburb, some have closed - five according to the BIA. The Herald counted 10 empty shops along Beaumont Street last week, although some appeared to be undergoing renovations. Craig Comyns, who has operated a butchery on the street for 26 years, agreed Hamilton was in a state of transition but he said it had "been through it before".
"It has its spurts and it stops and it starts," he said.
The loss of complementary businesses, like a "deli, grocer and bread shop", had been detrimental to his trade. "It's a changing area. Hamilton is traditionally an old suburb," he said.
"A lot of young people are moving in and don't go to places like this. They go out to shopping centres and do their big shop. They're open late and you can go anytime."
Hamilton resident Georgina Ross, whose parents operated a takeaway shop in the late 50s and 60s, remembers the precinct's heyday. She said the suburb had "a lot more beggars" now, but the community spirit remained. She welcomed the influx of new businesses.
"I still love Hamilton," she said. "It's very unique.
"I walk up the street and talk to the Italian people I know, the Greek people. I can go to get bread and milk and be gone for four hours and never leave the block.
"I don't think there's too many suburbs where people can say they could do that."
Sophie Bramwell, who took over The Neighbourhood Salon this year, said Hamilton had "a lot of potential". "It's quirky, up and coming."
"It's definitely going to be more community-based," she said.
"It's getting better. More people seem to be moving here."
Businesses to open in Hamilton in the past year
- In Forno
- Cake Boi
- S Garden Dessert House
- Indian Superstore
- Muse Pilates Studio
- Common Circus
- BP Hamilton
- Sham's Kebab House
- Biggs Coffee Shop
- The Blonde Boy
- Jasmine Mart
- Koutchi Moroccan Handcrafts
- Goldies Dress Hire
- Fever Dream
- Aladdin Charcoal Chicken
- Broaster Chicken
- Newcastle Men's Shed
- Anderson Workforce
- Sapori at Tailors
- IV Lounge
- ACS Local
- The Rosewood Centre
- Loan Market
- Café crn Tudor and William St
- Bangkok Nights
- Rice's Bookshop