What’s behind the death of our shopping strips

 

IT'S been happening for years in our regional centres and the pattern is being reflected in Brisbane's suburbs: once prosperous high streets and central business districts are seeing an alarming number of retail vacancies.

The Courier-Mail has reported the same disturbing decline in suburban Brisbane and in a string of cities across the state. But why is it happening?

The economy is a major factor - Australian consumer confidence is anything but buoyant, with the ANZ-Roy Morgan Australian Consumer Confidence index last week reporting a 4.7% drop in how respondents felt about their financial circumstances compared with 12 months ago.

Regional economies boosted by the resources boom in the early 2000s took a hit when those fortunes faded and some have never recovered. Then the Global Financial Crisis later that decade had a long-lasting impact on consumer confidence.

The shell of a former Earth n Sea restaurant is for lease - one of about half a dozen stores that were former eateries that are up for lease in Nundah. Picture: Darren Cartwright
The shell of a former Earth n Sea restaurant is for lease - one of about half a dozen stores that were former eateries that are up for lease in Nundah. Picture: Darren Cartwright

Another piece of the puzzle is changes in shopping habits - retailers follow the shoppers, and shoppers go where it's easiest to shop. In the Internet age, it's often easiest to shop from home. But if you head out, you want to find a park. No park, no shopping.

As Nundah real estate agent James Clark explained in Darren Cartwright's Courier-Mail story on vacant shops at suburban Nundah's Village retail strip, 'parking is a massive issue. Even we have to shift our cars all the time and our frustration levels are at an all-time high'.

In the retail space, rent pressures are another challenge: last month The Courier-Mail reported falling foot traffic at Brisbane's large Carindale shopping centre had not seen a commensurate reduction in rent costs.

Retailers there reported that online shopping had made an impact across everything from retail clothing to restaurants.

Our regions reporter Michael Madigan wrote about our dying regional main streets in The Sunday Mail back in April. At the time, central Gympie had 62 vacant properties, 25 in Toowoomba, 17 in Gladstone, almost 50 in Townsville and others in Rockhampton and Mackay.

Bundaberg's News Mail wrote about empty shops back in January while in July the Fraser Coast Chronicle reported six shops were set to become vacant at a major Hervey Bay shopping centre.

 

One of about a dozen outlets for lease in the Village, Nundah. Picture: Darren Cartwright
One of about a dozen outlets for lease in the Village, Nundah. Picture: Darren Cartwright

 

Back in 2017, The Courier-Mail wrote about downtown Maryborough - which once had a bustling department store, supermarkets, banks, jewellers and other retailers in its main street - reaching 50 empty shops. I grew up in the city and can't remember a vacant shop there until the family-owned department store finally closed its doors, its premises rapidly filled by new tenants.

The challenge of vacant shops for our suburbs and regional towns is a significant one for local, state and federal governments - every thriving business in a retail space is a vote of confidence in the local economy, and every vacant shop is a signal to retailers - and shoppers - to look elsewhere.

The problem is complex and it's not limited to Queensland, or Australia. The US has seen this pattern for decades: Bruce Springsteen sang about 'white washed windows and vacant stores' in My Hometown back in 1984 - the song describing small town America impacted by economic hard times and a shopping shift from downtown areas to suburban strip malls and shopping centres.

Some centres in the US have launched innovative downtown recovery programs - Lancaster in California's Antelope Valley converted a once-faded main street into a revitalised town centre area with restaurants, retail, arts and entertainment after local shoppers had abandoned Lancaster Boulevarde for large, air-conditioned suburban malls. A key to the concept was easy parking - with plenty of on-street and off-street spaces. They still go to the malls, but now they've got a reason to visit the main street. The challenge for us is to find our own reasons to convince shoppers to return to high streets.