Entering one of central Bendigo’s pedestrian thoroughfares – Killians Walk – can be a unique experience for the uninitiated.
The glossy neutral-coloured floor tiles, belying their age, are complimented by seemingly endless rows of shuttered shop fronts.
Some vacant shops resemble storage facilities, cardboard boxes filled with advertising material are the remaining vestiges of more prosperous commercial times.
‘For sale’, ‘for lease’, ‘rent negotiable’ signs adorn numerous windows and doors in the jaded shopping precinct.
One shop owner, frustrated by the inactivity, took his sign a step further, offering a 60 per cent reduction on body corporate fees, in addition to what he termed “generous” rental rates.
Albert Cassar, who hasn’t had a tenant for around 12 months, remembered the happier times.
“People used to spend time here, now the place is dirty and shabby,” he said.
His current rental price is considerably lower than what he used to recoup 18 months ago, and almost half the value of what previous owners of the space raked in five years ago.
Additionally, he believes the space he owns has devalued by $100,000 since he bought it in 2013.
Reducing rent and offering discounted body corporate fees – believed to be around $8000 per year for his space – becomes slightly meaningless if, as Mr Cassar suggests, “no one seems to want them (shops)”.
On a rough count, around a third of the 33 shops – including upstairs – in Killians Walk are vacant.
Former president of the Bendigo Traders Association Steven Blundell, who is a partner in Killians Walk business Ancient Art Chinese massage, said the expensive body corporate fees were an additional deterrent for potential businesses.
“The sad reality is retail is struggling. It’s just so expensive to operate a retail business in the current economic environment,” he said.
He said retail space in Killians Walk in the 1980s was the most expensive in Bendigo.
Another business owner in the thoroughfare, who is in the throes of moving out, said shoddy infrastructure and outdated facilities in the walk meant he was paying three times as much in electricity bills than a comparable space in other company offices in Brisbane.
Killians Walk Owners Corporation Manager Shelley Euvrard, from Tweed Sutherland First National, said the body corporate fees included insurance, security, cleaning and a number of others services.
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“We're looking at every possible way of reducing the fees,” she said, adding solar panels had been installed in recent times to help reduce collective energy bills.
The said reality was – as was the case in other areas around the CBD – the demand for the spaces was not particularly high.
“It’s not just Killians Walk that is vacant, it’s everywhere,” Ms Euvrard said.
However, Handle Bar and a new Asian food restaurant – Gaijin Eatery – are two examples of new, prospering business in the precinct.
A stone’s throw from Killians Walk is Hargreaves Mall, which is seemingly getting emptier by the day.
People used to spend time here, now the place is dirty and shabbyAlbert Cassar, Killians Walk landlord
Jewellery chain Thomas Jewellers last month became the latest retailer to close or relocate from the mall, bringing the total of empty, or soon to be vacant, shops on the shopping strip to ten.
Some stores – Athletes Foot, MyHair, Ruffells and Dymocks –have relocated, moving a matter of metres in some instances.
Despite the apparent visual decline of the CBD’s retail sector, the City of Greater Bendigo said the vacancy rate is just four per cent.
Speaking after being officially sworn in for her second mayoral term last week, Margaret O’Rourke, whose election campaign focused on revitalisation of the CBD, among others, said council wasn’t responsible for retailers’ woes.
“Council cannot control if businesses change their business direction, but it does have a responsibility to provide an accessible and inviting space,” she said.
Cr O’Rourke hoped an injection of people in the area – through a potential state government service hub and new law courts – would encourage more shops to open.
There were calls for the sate government to help in returning the Bendigo CBD to a vibrant retail and business area through Be.Bendigo, who submitted an application for $100,000 of matched funding over two years for a strategy aiming to improve conditions for traders in October 2016.
An increased police presence – aimed at stamping out pockets of antisocial behaviour in Hargreaves Mall in particular – has improved things slightly, traders feel.
But while the environment in and surrounding the mall may have improved, its reputation may take longer to mend, according to Mr Cassar.
“People don’t really want to spend time here (CBD shopping precinct) anymore,” he said.
Some vulnerable shoppers in particular felt frightened by youths and some of their behaviour, Mr Cassar said.
Asked whether, in hindsight, he would have bought the shop in Killians Walk again, Mr Cassar, replied with a chuckle, followed by a stern ‘no’.
Mr Cassar’s negativity is shared by a section of local traders, but others – some of whom have been able to negotiate cheaper rents – are finding ways to survive in an uncertain and demanding economic climate.