The Beagle Editor,
Kim Odgers’ observations about Batemans Bay’s empty shops (The Beagle, 30.8.2019) deserve to be followed by a vigorous community discussion about what to do about them, because the ‘problem’ is only going to get worse, not better.
As Kim suggests, empty shops are the result of numerous factors: the decline of the shopping strip and the rise of shopping malls; industrial estates having become commercial estates, thereby establishing multiple competing shopping ‘centres’ in many towns (as has happened recently in Batemans Bay); the proliferation of service outlets (in particular) within residential areas; the gradual decline in service provided by small traders and customer’s willingness to, instead, accept minimal service from alternative outlets offering a wider range of products at lower prices; the failure to provide adequate parking within, or transport to, older shopping precincts; unrealistically high rents charged by landlords; and lately, the increasing availability of mail order and internet-based retailing that is conveniently available from one’s home and is accessible 24/7. I’d even suggest factors such as retailers no longer providing single-use bags for small or impulse purchases will only exacerbate the problem – forcing those who choose to shop at all, to do so in a one-stop outlet.
Empty shops are not just an eyesore. They are a little like rabbits – they uncontrollably multiply, because every new empty shop displays a huge, unmissable, unmistakable sign: ‘This is not a vibrant, customer-friendly area; you are better off shopping elsewhere’.
So, what are we to do with all the empty shops throughout towns up and down the South Coast?
The community must decide that.
If we want ‘shopping centres’ to survive, we must demand that businesses be conducted in them – not be scattered elsewhere, throughout residential areas. So, all those doctors, dentists, hairdressers, child care centres, etc., that are popping up in residential houses (usually simply to avoid the high rents charged in retail and commercial areas) must be moved elsewhere. The rule should be that if a customer or client visits your business, then that business must not be conducted in a residential area.
Similarly, commercial and retail outlets should be moved out of industrial areas and relocated to commercial areas.
The fringes of shopping strips, in particular, have the greatest number of empty shops. These shops should be re-purposed: for example, turned into housing – even into short-term tourist accommodation. Perhaps some of these dying areas should even (with a reasonable amount of notice) be rezoned from commercial to residential, to ensure that empty shops are converted into habitable housing.
The business community and, in particular, landlords and their letting agents, must make more efforts to ensure shops are not left vacant. If that means accepting lower rents, then so be it. Perhaps a hefty tax should be levied on shops that remain vacant for more than (say) six weeks – that would encourage landlords to find new tenants quickly!; perhaps the business community should look at alternative uses of shops, such as turning some into ‘markets’ with the space (and the costs) shared by a number of small traders, and spaces within these markets being offered on very short-term leases; perhaps some meaningful review should be held into the disincentives (such as the high cost of public liability insurance and an enormous amount of, really unnecessary, regulations and red tape) that retailers and would-be retailers currently face.
My out-of-towner’s solution for Batemans Bay? Redefine (significantly contract) the boundaries of the CBD; build a good, multi-storey carpark on the vacant land (carpark) in the CBD centre; significantly improve all road entrances to and exits from the CBD; encourage shops on the fringes of the town to move to the centre of town to fill all CBD empty premises; repurpose (probably transform to residential) the retail premises currently strung out along the approach roads to the CBD. In other words, create a smaller CBD but a more vibrant CBD.