by Lisa Allen

The Weeknd Australian; 5-6 October 1996; Australia

Press Index

An ambitious expansion plan across Australia for McDonald's fast food restaurants is running into a barrage of formidable opposition.

Conservationists, small businesses, politicians, architects, heritage groups and specially formed local-interest groups are forming a broad front against the 'Mac Attack' strategy, which aims to add another 350 outlets to the McDonald's chain over the next five years.

Under an ambitious expansion plan masterminded by the company's local chief, Mr Charlie Bell, the number of McDonald's restaurants has almost doubled over the past years from 269 to more than 570.

Multi-millionaire Mr Bell, 35, has more than a managerial incentive to drive the company's expansion in Australia. In 1990, along with 10 other executives, he invested $8.2million for a 3 per cent stake in the chain.

Since then, Mr Bell and other rlocal shareholders have boostd their stake to 9.3 per cent, equating to to $94million.

Given the pace of the expansion, critics say it is hardly surprising that more and more frequent opposition is being raised against the 'McDonald's experience'.

Some of the new outlets are planned for regional towns where, Mr Bell says, a McDonald's store instantly becomes the biggest employer in town.

The latest battleground is at Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

Despite the rejection last year of a similar application at narby Wentworth Falls, McDonald's has applied for a 74 seat restaurant and drive-thru on the main road into the town, overlooking the scenic Jamison Valley.

The proposal, on which the local council is expected to rule in December, has run into wide spread opposition.

Local architect Mr Ian McMillan said: "There aren't any major cities in the world which have a wilderness within an hour and a half's drive of the CBD, yet here we are faced with the possibility of the same fate that has beset every major town in Australia.

"How incongruous it would be if the Blue Mountains were to obtain World Heritage Listing and McDonald's in the same year."

A public meeting at nearby Leura this week attracted more than 200 protestors.

So far, Blue Mountain residents have managed to stop the development of fast food outlets on 65km of the Great Western Highway, which runs along the spine of the mountain range from Blaxland and west to Lithgow.

Their concerns are as much economic as environmental because, they argue, such a powerful magnet on the main road into the town could destroy small cafes and restaurants. This in turn, would ruin the character of the town's lively main street.

The burghrs of Katoomba are the latest in an increasingly long line of community groups and individuas nationwide voicing opposition to fast food restaurants, which have McDonald's as their aggressive vanguard.

Bolstered by community angr, local councils are no longer passively agreeing to the development demands of the Big Mac.

Councils are saying no.

Attempts to make McDonald's and other fast-food operators design facades conforming to heritage streetscapes and incidents of development applications being rejected entirely are becoming increasingly frequent.

In Fairlight, north of Sydney, a McDonald's closed because of lack of patronage and the council's refusal of plans for a drive thru, and at Cronulla, south of Sydney, the council refused McDonald's application to gain a foothold in the suburb. McDonald's later lost an appeal to the Land and Environment Court.

Students of the University of NSW were reported to have rejected a McDonald's on campus, but th company claimed this week that it had decided not to proceed with the project.

Beacon Hill residents tried but failed to stop the development of a McDonald's in the north-west Sydney suburb after McDonald's took the application

to the Land and Environment Court.

South Sydney Council has resisted an application to build a McDonald's on public land at Sydney's Moore Park. The matter is also before the Land and Environment Court.

This 'Rainbow coalition' of opposition is likely to strengthen rather than weaken over the next few years, according to Adelaide architect Ms Liz Vine.

She has written a book, Streetwise, touching on the corporate hardball tactics used by fast-food giants to push through development approvals and the lack of aestetics displayed by most to blend their designs with heritage streetscapes.

"Parisians complained of cultural heresy when McDonald's proposed a restaurant in the building where Picasso bought his paints," Ms Vines told a recent Heritage and the Mall in Australia conference in Adelaide.

"Fast-food companies and service stations argue that the standard building design and recognised corporate image associated with their business is of paramount importance.

"It is essential that those companies who wish to operate in traditional precincts and main streets contribute to, rather than detract from, the stereoscope character ... We must resist corporate blackmail.

Increasingly in the UK and the US careful negotiations are now taking place and exacting design review standards no longer allow for inappropriate standards no longer allow for inappropriate standard units in heritage precincts and main streets."

The head of conservation at the National Trust, Mr Stephen Davies, has also joined the debate.

"They have to make an effort to integrate (in a design sense)," he said.

Mr Davies said fast-food operators often threatened local communities with the line "If we can't have it the way we want it, we won't go there".

But, recognising the potential employment benefits local communities might miss if a fast-food operator chose another town, he added: "You can't have your big McMac and eat it too."

In a statement to The Australian this week, McDonald's said: "Our restaurants are designed to enhance their surroundings, preserving the architectural heritage and cultural character of the local area."

McDonald's expansion, according to the statement, has been driven by consumer demand and a focus on enhancing a customer base rather than creating it.

"We are developing new opportunities to become even more convenient for our customers and further increase our market share," it said.

This has failed to deflect the ire of the Blue Mountains residents, including local MP Mr Bob Debus.

"They will threaten local food businesses which rely on both the small local market and are also dependent on the tourism market for their success," he said.

"Also, it is one thing for McDonald's to be down among the supermarkets in the town centre, but it is another for it to be on the highway, where it will change the whole quality of the landscape.

"The idea of big golden arches on the ridge above Katoomba is one of concern."

On a wider note, the chairman of the Heritage Council (NSW), Mr Howard Tanner, said: "A number of people are pressing the heritage council to hold a forum to discuss with McDonald's, Pizza Hut, KFC, the major petrol stations and others as to responsible design for the NSW.

"The entitlement to place standard shed buildings in these locations is questioned."

When questioned last year about the flak McDonald's has had to take over the years, Mr Bell gave the rueful response: "I don't lose any sleep over it at all ... but it is ironic that all those places over the years who said the locals did not want us, yet once the stores opened, they do better than the average.

"If the locals didn't want us there they wouldn't be using us. It ain't over yet."

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