The central business district is often not only the geographic heart of a place; it can represent the social and economic hub of a regional city too.
But a growing number of empty shops, incidents of antisocial behaviour in Hargreaves Mall and a general sense of a subdued atmosphere among shoppers have given rise to concerns about the future of the precinct in Bendigo.
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.
Mayor Margaret O’Rourke said Mr Walker’s report was due to be put before councillors this week and would be presented to retailers in the near future.
The council needed to refresh its CBD strategy, she said, and that could not happen without the input of traders themselves.
Business network and representative organisation Be.Bendigo has proposed a co-ordinated approach to managing issues affecting traders in the centre of the city, similar to what is seen from management in indoor shopping centres.
Chief executive officer Leah Sertori said shopping centre management helped maintain a good shopping environment by overseeing such issues as the security, cleanliness, promotions and the overall look and feel of their facilities.
“That kind of co-ordination is what’s missing from the strip shopping environment,” she said.
Last October Be.Bendigo submitted a proposal to the state government for $100,000 in matched funding to provide this co-ordination, but no response has yet been received.
One measure Be.Bendigo proposes to improve the CBD is to ensure all vacant shop windows are dressed and well-lit, to create an inviting atmosphere for shoppers.
Ms Sertori said the resources needed to achieve this were already found in the city: Bendigo TAFE ran a visual merchandising course from which students could provide the skills, Be.Bendigo members offered to provide products and displays, and there was a strong arts community to be tapped for talent, but there needed to be a co-ordinating body.
“We need to do something right now about the presentation of these beautiful buildings,” she said.
Ms Sertori said building owners also needed to take responsibility for their assets and think about their presentation.
Organisation of window displays had been done on a voluntary basis in the past, she said, but it was difficult to maintain consistency.
The importance of the presentation of buildings, both occupied and vacant, was reiterated by local property developer Scott Jackman.
“Building owners need to get better at presenting their buildings and supporting their tenants,” Mr Jackman said.
He said he would like to see the City of Greater Bendigo set a minimum aesthetic standard and enforce it through a rate penalty.
Property owners needed to look at what measures they could take to attract and retain tenants, he said, such as helping with shop fitouts.
At Mr Jackman’s new development on the corner of Mollison and Mitchell streets, he said he spent about $60,000 on the outdoor seating area to double the seating capacity of the cafe on the ground floor and support his tenant’s chance of success.
He said the council had done a “great job” in regards to presentation in maintaining lighting, paths and parks.
Cr O’Rourke said the council had been doing more work in the CBD in recent times, stepping up its cleaning regime, painting posts and poles, fitting speakers in Hargreaves Mall to play music, and installing lights in the trees of the mall.
But there has also been a suggestion put forward to get more people in the area on a full-time basis to boost its vibrancy.
Mr Jackman believes encouraging more people to live in central Bendigo will help reinvigorate the CBD by driving more foot traffic in the precinct, a suggestion supported by Be.Bendigo.
One of the goals of the council’s 2014 residential strategy was to have 3000 people living within one kilometre of the Bendigo Post Office by 2030.
But encouraging people to live in flat complexes was not the answer, Mr Jackman said – most new vertical developments in the precinct faced too many obstacles in the form of heritage controls, building regulations and engineering difficulties to be viable.
Instead, he would like to see old houses in the area bounded by Edward and Myrtle streets, which are mostly occupied by businesses, returned to residential housing.
“It’s a thriving little hub, but they’re old houses not suited to business,” Mr Jackman said.
Mr Jackman said those businesses should move into the upper levels of existing buildings within the centre of the CBD, and business owners should undertake the necessary works at ground level to provide engagement with the upper levels.
Ms Sertori said the community as a whole also had a part to play in the vitality of the CBD.
She encouraged people to support local businesses and be vocal about issues important to them by contacting councillors.
Jill Cantwell, owner of Jools for Jim, Neon Peach and Royal Jims Barbers, has also called for people to shop in the CBD, as has Cr O’Rourke.
“The goal is to have a really vibrant and successful CBD, full of successful local businesses,” Ms Sertori said.