Shopping precincts at the heart of communities are under threat

Victoria now has a 20 per cent vacancy rate on some main streets.

Victoria now has a 20 per cent vacancy rate on some main streets. Photo: Getty

It doesn’t matter where you are in Australia, the main street is key for a community, where people used to do their shopping.

But without urgent action by local, state and federal governments, businesses will continue to suffer, or close, according to Mainstreet Australia, the peak body for main street businesses.

Mainstreet Australia executive officer Elizabeth Joldeski says main streets are generally home to small businesses. 

By supporting small businesses, you’re giving back to the community.

You’re paying off someone’s mortgage or helping parents send their children to school, Ms Joldeski said.

However, it’s not easy for small business owners who have been hit by pandemic lockdowns or restrictions, supply chain issues, the high cost of living and freak weather over the past few years.

Throughout all the hardships main streets around Australia have shown their strength, but they remain under threat.

A 20 per cent vacancy rate

Although a record number of people in Victoria are now working remotely and spending more time within their communities, vacancy rates in main streets are up to 20 per cent in some areas.

Ms Joldeski said remote work has created new opportunities for main street businesses.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has done a number on businesses, with people and workplaces being faced with “unprecedented pressures”.

Retail shoppers are seen going through racks of clothes on sale on Chapel street in Melbourne

The best thing people can do to safeguard the future of their main street is by shopping locally. Photo: Getty

These issues aren’t just plaguing Victoria, but just about everywhere in Australia.

A critical issue that is observed across the board is when governments – be it local, state or federal – look to support small businesses, it’s generally for things like infrastructure, Ms Joldeski said.

“So things like beautification, streetscapes and lighting,” she said.

“Which is fantastic, and really necessary and important, but what we want to see more of across the board from all governments everywhere, is the focus on not just the hard stuff, or physical infrastructure, but the soft infrastructure.”

Shop local

The best thing people can do is to go shopping down the street.

During Victoria’s lockdowns, people reconnected with their local strip, Ms Joldeski said.

“Because we were forced to,” she said, adding it was one of the more positive things to come out of the pandemic.

She believes people still want to support local businesses, but that attitude needs to be sustained.

“When you work from home, shop locally, play locally, eat locally and connect locally. So definitely support your local businesses,” she said.

“In doing that, know that, predominantly, the small businesses on all of our main streets around Australia are usually owned by a family.”

Our shopping habits have changed drastically over the past few years and online shopping is now the norm.

Ms Joldeski suggests mixing it up and the good thing is, many local businesses have adapted and now have an online presence.

Successful main streets evolve

These days, a thriving main strip isn’t just reliant on retail-driven foot traffic.

Instead, there’s diversity and options. Main streets might have several gyms or pilates studios, dog groomers, cafes and restaurants.

“That’s just reflective of how much we’re changing as a society as well, with the new types of services,” she said.

“These strips are changing and with that, the foot traffic is different. It’s not just retail and that’s what a successful main street looks like.

“It’s one that’s diverse and it’s one that meets different needs of different consumers.”

Mainstreet Australia has launched its Our Gathering Places Under Threat plan in hopes of teaming up with the Victorian government to help main streets.

The recommendations include support for businesses to negotiate new rental agreements and working in collaboration with other businesses on the strip.

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