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“Docklands won’t ever be the same”

By Brendan Rees

The head of Docklands’ business group has boldly declared that “Docklands won’t ever be the same” as businesses are left reeling in the wake of the state’s devastating fourth lockdown.

It comes as small businesses struggle to attract customers as the normally busy streets of the waterfront have turned into a trickle of visitors as COVID restrictions slowly ease.

Johanna Maxwell, president of the Docklands Chamber of Commerce, said the bitter taste of the lockdown from May 27 to June 10 had hit hard.

“This last lockdown, although only the third-longest in duration, has by far been the most devastating,” she told Docklands News.

“We were seeing a moderate return to workplaces, some smaller events and activations being planned and a general easing in public apathy, but all that is gone.”

Mrs Maxwell said Docklands was “never, ever going to be back to what it was”, as businesses plunged into financial uncertainty.

“Docklands won’t ever be the same. I know it’s a big claim, but lockdowns have changed this precinct more than anywhere else in Australia,” she said.

She said without federal JobKeeper payments and recent government grants being “a drop in the ocean compared to the business losses that have occurred”, more shops would likely close.

“I’m personally aware of restaurants and accommodation providers who lost in the order of $300,000 in those two weeks,” she said.

“With $7000 being the maximum offered in the last round it simply means we are going to see more and more businesses in Docklands shutting for good.”

“Getting the population vaccinated, investing in the businesses that are still hanging around and supporting initiatives like Docklands Dollars and Melbourne Money to encourage spending are the immediate attention needed.”

Patrick Coghlan, CEO of credit reporting agency CreditorWatch, warned that with no “clear path” to mass vaccination, and issues still emanating from hotel quarantine “we expect substantial increases in external administrations above the norm in the state”.

Hakim Zeini, who runs Rum Runner Cruises in Docklands, said the latest lockdown had struck a heavy blow.

Mr Zeini said he had put his business up for sale after experiencing three cancellations worth $9500 during the two-week lockdown.

“It’s been devastating, we are suffering. Looking at Docklands it’s not what it used to be, it’s very sad our lives have been turned upside down,” he said.

He said he had had enough of coronavirus lockdowns and predicted the Docklands precinct wouldn’t go back to normal for at least “another two years”.

He said bookings had dried up with his boat being restricted to 15 passengers. Before the pandemic, he was able to host 45 passengers.

“We’re getting inquiries, but people are still in fear,” he said.

Also left reeling was Sandra Nesci, whose beloved Mr Collins café at Collins Square, also saw revenue plunge by 95 per cent.

“We just did takeaway but there wasn’t much going on that’s for sure,” she said after her business suffered more than $25,000 in weekly losses.

“There’s no vibe,” she said of the precinct. “It is what it is.”

At NewQuay, Jerry Dimas, the owner of Cargo restaurant, said he had chosen to close during the lockdown because takeaway would barely cover running costs.

“It’s tough but I believe if we come out of this the right way Docklands can grow,” he said.

“The locals are fantastic. You get a lot of people popping to say ‘g’day’ and have coffee, which is great.”

Mr Dimas said other traders relied on foot traffic and visitors to survive. The latest data showed pedestrian activity at NewQuay remaining about 40 per cent of pre-COVID-19, but that was expected to increase as more workers and visitors return.

The state government offered a $2500 payment for businesses and a $2000 top-up during the fourth lockdown, which Mr Dimas said would help “but there’s a lot more expenses behind the scene”.

Jessie, who runs Collins Street Alterations, was left picking up the pieces and forced to rely on her savings to stay afloat.

“We’re still closed because most customers work from home and Docklands is very quiet,” she said, adding she was forced to lay off two staff.

In Batman’s Hill, Push Fitness owner Andrew Ward said while he was lucky to ride out the past four lockdowns, he expressed concern about the continued hit the health and fitness industry faced.

“Our industry is always misrepresented from the Department of Health angle as being a risk as opposed to being a solution,” he said

“We continue to be grouped with a high-risk environment which is unfair because the industry has really stepped up with all of this code unsafe practices.”

Fitness studios opened a week after stay-at-home restrictions were lifted but at this stage masks still must be worn but can be taken off during exercise.

“Lockdowns are crippling our industry … we’re just happy to be open because we’re always first to close, last to open,” Mr Ward said.

Nicole Hill, general manager of the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel, said the lockdown was “extremely tough on us as a business”.

“As always our first focus was our staff, we have more than 35 permanent staff and were able to continue to support them and provide work to keep them engaged over this time,” she said.

While the observation wheel had reopened, Ms Hill said they were staying “cautiously optimistic” about the future thanks to the ongoing support of Victorians and campaigns to drive visitors back to the precinct.

She said they were excited to launch their Winter Chalet experience and looking forward to welcoming back families with their Kids Fly Free offer these school holidays.

Geoff Ward, group head of precincts at Development Victoria, acknowledged the difficulty businesses in Docklands had faced, and was working closely with the Docklands Chamber of Commerce and City of Melbourne to partner on a range of initiatives to support the precinct which “remains a focus for us”.

“Development Victoria was pleased to support the recent Docklands Dollars initiative and we also supported previous activation events in Docklands, such as the ‘Wonderland’ family event during the April school holidays,” he said.

“We have also committed to sponsoring the July Firelight Festival and continue to look at future opportunities to drive visitors back to Docklands.”

City of Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp conceded Docklands’ businesses had been “particularly hard-hit” by the pandemic, but with restrictions easing and offices being allowed up 75 per cent of their staff, she looked forward to welcoming back more people.

“This is particularly important for Docklands, which is normally home to 72,000 workers,” Cr Capp said.

“We want to see a vibrant and thriving Docklands with workers returning, and restaurants, cafes and retail stores buzzing.”

“It’s been great to see Victorians claim more than $2 million in cashback in the first weeks of our ‘Melbourne Money’ dining scheme, which means $10 million flowing into our local hospitality businesses. We’ve already received more than 1000 claims from diners who visited our 343 eligible Docklands businesses since the program kicked off.”

“People are taking advantage of our FOMO Freebies campaign that launched this week. The program includes free giveaways to Docklands experiences such as hundreds of free double passes to the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel, O’Brien Ice House, and the Imaginaria immersive play experience.”

Cr Capp said the City of Melbourne had also supported the Docklands Dollars voucher program, which has “proven to be a real hit”.

“Each month’s allocation has been snapped up within minutes, providing people with cashback on accommodation, hospitality and retail experiences throughout Docklands. The program is part of our joint $100 million Melbourne City Recovery Fund delivered in partnership with the Victorian Government,” she said.

“We look forward to the return of Firelight Festival, which will be a major boost to local businesses.”

“This year Firelight Festival will receive a record investment of $1.85 million, including $850,000 from the Victorian Government to extend the event from three to five nights, after the event was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.”

The festival will feature flame jets, fire twirlers, and flaming sculptures between 5.30pm and 10.30pm each night from July 21 to 25 •

For more information: docklandsdollars.com.au // money.melbourne.vic.gov.au

Docklands: It’s time for a plan

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