Hargreaves Mall can learn lessons from improvements in Bendigo Bank Central complex: Traders

FULL UP: Bendigo Bank's national leasing manager Cindy Lazenby has worked to improve the aesthetics of its shopping precinct over the past 18 months.
FULL UP: Bendigo Bank's national leasing manager Cindy Lazenby has worked to improve the aesthetics of its shopping precinct over the past 18 months.

The chicken or the egg. 

The fabled expression is perhaps most relevant to central Bendigo's retail woes.

What comes first - the shops or shoppers?

The stark contrast in atmosphere and foot traffic between the Bath Lane precinct and Hargreaves Mall, given their relative proximity, partly answers this question.

A jeweller and a bookstore - both of whom had moved out of the mall or areas surrounding it to the Bath Lane precinct - offered strikingly similar explanations.

"We needed to get out of the mall," Dave Ruffell explained, suggesting the changes made to the the mall in previous years was a catalyst for their departure. 

Dymocks made a similar move last month.

"We weren't getting enough foot traffic," customer service representative Vanessa Henderson said.

"Some of our customers also said they felt unsafe walking down the mall at certain times." 

The well-documented struggles of the mall, and its tributary thoroughfares, compared with Bath Lane and the Bendigo Bank complex, which is seemingly going from strength to strength, provides a glimmer of hope for the mall.

Retail is struggling, but people are still shopping.

The Bendigo Bank complex, recently renamed ‘Bendigo Bank central’,  has announced all its shops are full.

As the bank’s national leasing manager Cindy Lazenby explained, the company rents the complex off the owner and recoups rent from the tenants. 

Ms Lazenby admitted the bank was better placed financially to absorb lower rental incomes in order to have people in their shops.

Some stores, she said, have been offered no rental increases for 18 months, and not tied down to longer-term contracts.

This luxury is not experienced by individual shop owners in the mall – some of whom were reportedly seeking rents charged five and ten years ago. 

The impact of reducing rental prices on the overall sale price of a shop is also a concern for some owners.

Hayley Tibbett, owner of Indulge Fine Belgian Chocolates, said the improvements made to Bendigo Bank Central were encouraging.

“We’re happy we’ve got a landlord that interested in our business enough to help us,” she said.

“Retail is hard, it’s all very well to start but to keep going is the hardest part.

“Good things breed if you’ve got a good area.”

Mr Lazenby referenced a project called Renew Newcastle, which aimed to address a rapid decline in inner-city Newcastle after an increase in vacancy and dilapidation of many CBD buildings.

The project used temporary spaces to generate vibrancy in the inner city, while fostering a community where creative and cultural projects could flourish in low-cost informal commercial spaces. 

Since its inception in 2008, the project that filled the empty inner city by charging discount rent has decreased vacancy rates by at least 60 per cent, according to a cost benefit analysis by the University of Newcastle’s Centre of Full Employment and Equity.

Eighty-one properties have been filled by Renew, and an outlay of $200,000 leveraged into $3 million of tangible benefits, including a reversal of the city’s ‘blight’.

Thirty five projects graduated from low-rent Renew lodgings to their own commercially leased space.

The report also connected Renew’s revitalisation and falling crime rates during the day, when most Renew enterprises operate – an issue which has been prevalent in Bendigo, and indeed other malls across regional Victoria.

The Renew Newcastle example shows perhaps the chicken (in this case shops) comes before the egg (shoppers). 

Shop owners in the mall believe making the mall more attractive and safer will encourage people to spend more time there and shop. 

Retailers, theoretically, would then be encouraged to take up residence in the street, which is currently lined with a number of empty shopfronts.

The City of Greater Bendigo, in conjunction with Victoria Police, have made attempts to improve the amenity of the mall.

An annual ‘ball in the mall’ and increased police patrols in the area have worked to a certain extent, but, based on the chicken and the egg scenario, what is council doing to encourage more local businesses or projects to take the plunge? 

Earlier this year, the City of Greater Bendigo employed an expert, ‘retail doctor’ Brian Walker, to evaluate the CBD and provide recommendations on how the environment of the area could be improved.

He suggested some short-term ‘wins’ could be achieved through beautifying the precinct, work which has been conducted by the council.

However, longer-term strategies are not so obvious.

The retail doctor suggested a steering committee, comprised of interested stakeholders, might be instrumental in developing a vision for the CBD, and what role particular agencies had to play.

More recently, when pressed on what the future held for the tired precinct, the council, and its mayor Margaret O’Rourke, have pointed to a potential state government service hub and new law courts. 

The new buildings would bring more people and theoretically more shoppers into the area.

But will more people be the silver bullet some are looking for?

“You need to have a variety of shops and an inviting space that makes people want to spend time there,” Ms Lazenby said.

Bendigo council was unavailable for comment.