Carlton businesses struggling to stay open

Katie Johnson

With 28 per cent of street-facing shops in Carlton temporarily closed or completely vacant by the end of 2020, the suburb is struggling to bounce back from last year’s lockdowns.

To help with the fallout from COVID, the City of Melbourne has unanimously carried a motion to fill vacant shops with the work of artists and entrepreneurs to entice businesses and customers to return.

Cr Roshena Campbell said that as office workers and visitors begin to return to the CBD, they need to be greeted with a “vibrant city”.

“There’s no doubt that Melbourne has been disproportionally affected by the impacts of COVID and with 1000 vacant shopfronts, there is so much more that needs to be done,” Cr Campbell said.

“With the end of JobKeeper and the state government’s commercial rent relief scheme this month, we know there is a real risk that more business will shut.”

At the end of January, 13 per cent of street-facing shops in the City of Melbourne were vacant and another 13 per cent were closed due to COVID.

In Carlton, this amounted to 28 per cent of shops either temporarily or permanently shutting.

Cr Campbell said the council was doing everything possible to ensure city-goers were greeted with streets and laneways converted into open-air art galleries rather than rows of empty shops.

Some of the early projects have included Melbourne Fashion Week where designer work was showcased in shopfronts and Melbourne Music week where empty shops were filled with artwork inspired by musical instruments.

Twenty-three shops across the city have also been adorned with work by local artists, with plans to have 45 shops be a part of the open-air gallery by April.

Cr Campbell also said the council’s strategy would involve $100,000 of direct support for precinct associations to develop “tailored solutions to activate our shopping strips”.

“From Chinatown, to Docklands, to Lygon St, we know we need to reactivate each precinct and we know one size doesn’t fit all,” Cr Campbell said.

Carlton Residents Association (CRA) president Antoinette Sagaria said although the art instillations were a start, it was a short-sighted plan.

“The council should be looking at more long-term solutions like reducing the cost of starting a business in the area,” Ms Sagaria said.

“Expensive overhead costs like permits, licenses, rates and land tax don’t help the economy and it shouldn’t be up to landlords take care of the issue by reducing rent.”

Ms Sagaria also said that a more practical solution would be to funnel traffic along the main shopping strips like Lygon St.

“There is currently no right turn onto Lygon St from Cemetery Rd, so I think the turn from Swanston St should be blocked off and funnelled back onto Lygon St instead of residential roads,” Ms Sagaria said.

“We need greater traffic flow along there to expose people to those shops, and entice them to start up their own shops there.”

However, Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the Melbourne City Recovery fund would help to fund the short-term programs that will encourage other retailers to come in and use the spaces in the long-term.

“Empty shops really slow that beating retail heart we’re renowned for in our city and slows economic activity for those businesses around them,” the Lord Mayor said.

“Repurposing these spaces to engage artists also means we can make every job count at this critical time.”

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