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Council demands former ‘ghost’ store close again

Shaun is appealing the Inner West Council’s bizarre decision to close his corner store in Sydenham, despite his predecessor running it as a ghost shop for 3 years with Council’s knowledge. Photo: Alec Smart

by ALEC SMART

The proprietor of a convenience shop in Sydenham, known as the Corner Store, is puzzled why the Inner West Council (IWC) served him with a demand to cease trading. Prior to his reopening the premises in February 2020, it was a ‘ghost’ store for over three years, with stock inside but no visible customers.

Proprietor Shaun Bettridge, whose recently-opened convenience store at 260 Unwins Bridge Rd stocks predominantly local and Australian-made produce, revealed on the store’s Facebook page, ‘260 Unwins’, that he was visited by a council inspector before the closure demand.

On 6 May 2020 she served him with a formal Notice of Intent to Serve a Development Control Order under Section 9.34(1)(a) of Schedule 5 to the Environmental and Planning & Assessment Act 1979.

To summarise, that order to cease trading specifies: “Premises are being used for a purpose for which Development Consent is required but has not been obtained.”

Bettridge launched the convenience store on 22 Feb 2020 with a community barbecue featuring live music and displays by local artists. He retained the same signage as the mysterious previous owners, who took over from Fur-Niche furniture repairer in 2017. (More on that shortly).

Not long after the revamped shop began trading, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic impacted all businesses, especially small retail stores, many of which closed under the new Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020 imposed on 30 March.

However, Bettridge adapted to the new restrictions by selling what was outlined by the Federal Government as ‘essentials’: milk, eggs and toilet paper, as well as offering a printing service.

For customers in the 2044 postcode – Saint Peters, Sydenham and Tempe – many of whom are elderly and cannot easily commute to Marrickvile Metro shopping centre (the nearest source of essentials in the next suburb), Bettridge also facilitated free home delivery of pre-ordered boxes of fresh food from a local provider.

Inner West Council reason #1
On his 7 May post to ‘260 Unwins’, the Corner Store’s Facebook page, Mr Bettridge revealed: “It is with a heavy heart that I announce that the Inner West Council is trying to shut down the Sydenham Corner Store after only 3 months of operation and during the current climate. While bearing the brunt of COVID19 the council has decided that the DA from 1986 states that it is required to be a newsagency.

“Despite being a furniture shop for 19 years and then nothing for a long time after that, the council has decided that I am not a newsagency. I consider myself the closest thing to a newsagency that has been on this corner since 1986, keeping in the spirits of the original DA.

“The first communications I received from the Council was to cease trading, no prior visits, no prior questions, no prior discussion. Despite providing me no information on what they consider a newsagency, an industry that was deregulated years ago. They have informed me that I am not a newsagency.

“They have also ignored that I have stationery, art supplies, and printing services. Pre-social distancing I was also offering newspaper delivery for customers. I was in the process of setting up more services that I would consider to be newsagency services but it has only been 3 months from day one and these things take time…”

Mr Bettridge told City Hub, “What the order requires me to do is cease using the premises for the purpose of a retail store… They want to shut the shop down, but I don’t intend to let them. The first contact I had with the Inner West Council was from this woman inspector asking for my email.

Bettridge copied and enlarged the IWC Notice of Intent – of which City Hub has a copy – and framed it in the window, over which he printed a sign with the words “I Refuse”.

Bettridge also told City Hub of the visit he received from NSW Police officers a few days prior to the IWC inspector, who claimed they were dropping in to “buy a bag of lollies.” Whilst there they interrogated him on why his spray-paint cans were on a shelf behind the counter and not stored in a cage (like they are in trade stores such as Bunnings Hardware).

The police were apparently unaware Bettridge was fulfilling his legal requirement. According to the NSW Govt’s Fair Trading: “Businesses who sell spray paint cans are required by law to keep those cans either: in a locked cabinet; in or behind a counter so that customers cannot access the cans without the assistance of shop staff; or on a shelf 2.1 metres or higher”, the latter two of which he complied with.

Inner West Council reason #2
City Hub contacted the IWC for further details on why they wanted the Corner Store to cease trading, in case we overlooked something. A spokesperson responded on 11 May with a statement that contradicted the EPA/2020/0175 Notice of Intent to serve a Development Control Order that they originally issued Bettridge.

According to the IWC spokesperson: “Council commenced an investigation after receiving a complaint regarding the operating hours of this business from NSW Police. Evidence suggests that the shop is being operated beyond its permitted trading hours, often until the early hours of the morning.

“Despite the assertion by the proprietors to the contrary, a Council officer along with NSW Police did attend the shop on the 5 May 2020 and spoke with the business owner and other staff. On the basis that the persons present were seemingly unwilling to engage in any constructive conversation at that time, Council issued a notice to the owners that it intended to commence regulatory action to ensure the approved hours were complied with. On delivery of the notice by email, the business owner was also encouraged to speak with Council.

“Council are always willing to work with business owners to resolve these types of issues and formal action is only taken after careful consideration.

“An option exists for the owners to submit a development application seeking approval for the extended hours. Further formal action would likely cease while any application was being considered.”

So, to summarise, the principle reason the IWC stated in a legal letter on 6 May for their demand that the Corner Store cease trading was because: “The most recent Development Consent for the subject premises is Development Application No 10508 dated 3 September 1986 approved to use the ground floor shop as a Newsagency.”

(It also listed the store’s items on sale, including soft drinks, fresh fruit & veg, spray paint, personal hygiene products, packaged food, etc, that apparently violate what a newsagency can sell).

However, the principle reason the IWC claimed in a letter to City Hub on 11 May underlying their demand that the Corner Store cease trading was because “the shop is being operated beyond its permitted trading hours.”

After we told Mr Bettridge about the IWC focusing on trading hours, not the shop’s contents, and the claims he was uncooperative with their inspector, he replied: “I take issue with all of that actually. The [police] officers came in alone to ask about a theft we had. I hope they had their cameras on. They were asking about legalities and tobacco licence. All of which was ok… In their own words they were ‘busting our balls’.”

In regards to the IWC allegation that “the persons present were seemingly unwilling to engage in any constructive conversation at that time,” with the council inspector, Bettridge explained that he was off-premises when the inspector arrived without warning. She challenged his young employee instead of asking to engage with him, the proprietor. Bettridge insisted he was in the midst of a work project elsewhere, which he paused in order to go and meet her in the shop. He gave her his email address to enable written correspondence between them, then rushed back to his work commitments.

As Bettridge told City Hub (and posted on the 260 Unwins’ Facebook page): “Honestly, I have to maintain work elsewhere to keep the shop open and Mitch (another young local) working, but I love the area too much to go down without a fight.”

Ghost store’s strange history
For many years 260 Unwins Bridge Rd operated as a furniture repairs and sales store called Fur-Niche, which closed in 2017.

According to RealEstate.com.au, 260 Unwins Bridge Road sold for $1,470,000 on 26 May 2017. This included the residential area upstairs, a garden and rear garage. The photo taken to illustrate the sale, by Ray White Real Estate, shows the premises painted red with the Fur-Niche hand-painted still signage on the windows.

Three years and several months prior to Mr Bettridge taking custody of the empty shop and restocking its contents, it was outfitted and stocked as a corner store by persons unknown. But it’s customers were invisible.
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On 1 December 2017 the premises opened a Facebook page called ‘Corner Store 260 Sydenham’, which is still on Facebook, although it was never used. The profile picture shows the front of the store, featuring the ‘Corner Store’ signage that Bettridge still uses, and a view through the window revealing a 4-door glass-fronted fridge stocked with canned drinks and a freezer full of ice creams inside.

However, no one in Sydenham can remember the Corner Store ever opening for business. It was like a shop set up for ghosts.

On 7 Sept 2018, five planning applications were made to the IWC (and later withdrawn) under DA201800376, “To demolish part of the premises and carry out ground, first and second floor alterations and additions to the existing shop top housing building comprising 2 retail ground floor tenancies and 2 residential apartments.”

A photomontage that appears alongside the development application, still on the Inner West Council’s website and dated 4 Sept 2018, shows the 2-storey premises reimagined as a 3-storey building, with a café downstairs and two levels of self-contained apartments above, the backyard enclosed and added rear-facing balconies.

The Statement of Environmental Effects, dated 5 Sept 2018 declares: “Part demolition, alterations and additions to the existing shop-top housing building, including a new third level to comprise 2 retail ground floor tenancies, and 3 residential apartments.”

The application for alterations were made on behalf of Jamie Harris of Harris Building & Design Services on 7 Sept 2018, using a survey undertaken on 6 June 2017 by Geoffrey Browne.

Thereafter, once the Development Application was withdrawn, for reasons unspecified, the Corner Store remained a ghost shop with invisible customers. Was it a money-laundering operation? A tax-avoidance front? Or something more prosaic?

One thing is certain, the IWC knew of its presence and that it was fully stocked (including perishable goods) and allegedly trading as a convenience store – not a newsagency – for three years, despite no one being able to recall if it ever opened to the public.

On 6 April 2019, a member of the public uploaded a photo of the mysterious storefront to the unused ‘Corner Store 260 Sydenham’ Facebook page. It showed the drinks fridge still in place and fully-stocked with cans, but the ice cream freezer had been replaced with a glass counter stocked with what might be mobile phone parts, bags of confectionary or something else – the focus is blurred.

More importantly, atop the glass counter were lollipops, for which the woman commented: “This shop has never opened. Whatʼs going on? How do we free those chupa chups?”

According to Candy-Rific, a multinational confectionary distributor with a global license to export the famous Spanish lollipops, Chupa Chups have a shelf life of 2 years/24 months. A long time between ghosts.

On 3 Sept 2019, the shop at 260 Unwins Bridge Rd was advertised as “leased” by SublimeProperty.com.au, after it was repainted grey. The photo of the store on their webpage, with the glass cabinet still in place inside, but the drinks fridge replaced with an empty white set of shelves, shows the ‘Corner Store’ signage in the window that Mr Bettridge retained. The Chupa Chups have gone, like the ghosts.

Shaun Bettridge has created a petition on Change.org to challenge the IWC decision to close his business, called “Save the corner store #keepsydenhamopen”, which is rapidly approaching 2500 signatures.
https://www.change.org/p/inner-west-council-save-the-corner-store-keepsydenhamopen

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