By PETA GILBERT
Balmain businesses have united in an attempt to retain the village-like atmosphere of the suburb after a spate of business closures in the area.
The inner west suburb has seen a noticeable decline in consumers as well as increased commercial vacancy rates, but local business are determined to fight the decline.
Many businesses have been forced to close as rents increase and interest in independent local shops dwindles.
Recently, Leichhardt Council allocated a further $47,000 towards Renew Leichhardt, an initiative aimed at utilising untenanted shops. The project allows rent-free occupancy for creative enterprises, which attract visitors to the area without taking business away from local shops.
Renew Leichhardt is part of the social enterprise ‘Renew Australia’ which hopes to “catalyse community renewal, economic development, the arts and creative industries across Australia”.
A statement from Renew Australia said “Renew Leichhardt continues to breathe new life into the Leichhardt shopping precinct… the project is set to extend across the Municipality, with Council investigating locations beyond the trial Leichhardt shopping precinct”.
The decision comes after Leichhardt Council rejected a $28,000 grant requested by the Balmain Chamber of Commerce to implement shuttle buses between the White Bay Cruise Terminal and Balmain to create extra revenue for shop owners. Although the program was expected to generate a minimum of $1.3 million, the grant was refused because the council did not support the cruise terminal.
Balmain landlord and President of the Balmain Chamber of Commerce, Stephen Bastian, is determined to reinvigorate Balmain’s shopping strip, and was heavily involved in pushing for implementation of shuttle buses.
At the next council meeting, Mr Bastian hopes to propose a one metre weekend allowance of footpath to be used by shop owners on a temporary 12 month basis to sell their products, in the hope of creating a ‘market atmosphere’.
He also planned to implement a more personal strategy to support his tenants in the startup phase of their business.
This would include no fixed rent and any extra money made after paying their wages and other necessities would go towards the rent.
“At least this way I have someone in the shop and someone is able to make a go of it,” said Mr Bastian, who last week formed a committee with 30 other local businesses, dedicated to stimulating the economy in Balmain.
“One thing we are going to be working on is trying to encourage Balmain residents to use the local shops more,” he said.
Former owner of Balmain BBQ Chickens, Stephanos Nalpantidis agrees, and said locals needed to support the area.
“It’s the mentality of locals you have to change… If the trade is slowing down, rents are going up and the locals just aren’t shopping here, businesses will have no choice but to leave,” he said.
Mr Nalpantidis said residents play a huge role in saving Balmain’s village atmosphere by choosing to support local shops over big business.
“When Woolworths closed for five weeks for renovations, every shop in Balmain benefited. It’s such a beautiful shopping strip but it’s a shame what ‘big business’ is doing to it.”
Balmain BBQ Chickens was one of several Balmain stores to close down in recent years, following the closure of Bloomsbury florist, Ralph’s Delicatessen and various other longstanding stores.
Lorna Newling, who owned Bloomsbury for nearly 20 of its 40 operational years, closed its doors earlier this month after failing to sell the business.
“The purchaser lost because they couldn’t get the business they wanted and I lost because I couldn’t sell the business after all those years,” said Ms Newling.
“I think it will bounce back sometime in the future, it’s all cyclical.”
Principal at LJ Hooker Balmain Mary Karabellas said she was concerned about the future of the suburb if the village atmosphere continued to diminish.
“It’s a beautiful spot but ten years ago you only had to pay about half of what you pay for commercial property now and people aren’t willing to do that,” said Ms Karabellas, who grew up in Balmain.
“The vacancy rate would be more than double what it was compared to ten years ago. Back then it was buzzing, people were almost lining up to be on waiting lists to get a shopfront in Balmain. Now retailers can’t afford the rent but landlords won’t drop rent to meet the market.”
Mr Bastian hopes to continue working with council to rectify Balmain’s economic situation, although said business owners “will not rely solely on them.”
Together with the group of thirty Balmain business owners, he hopes to propose, discuss and vote on potential initiatives to finance.
“We have a few ideas being throwing around but nothing we have taken to the next step yet,” Mr Bastian said.