Behind the spin, W’bool business is losing heart

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The former Sam’s Warehouse store at Bayside Plaza is one of many shops lying empty in Warrnambool’s CBD and beyond, reflecting the steady decline in business confidence.


[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color:#A02F2F;”] Q [/dropcap]uite a bit has been written about the latest Warrnambool Business Confidence Survey that tests the pulse of local businesses, but nobody has been prepared to say that it reflects a city in deepening trouble.

The spin put on the 2014 results by the Warrnambool City Council is that business confidence has “stabilised”, in that the steady decline since 2011 has levelled out and while things are not good, at least they are no worse than last year.

And while nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, this is a bit like saying that the Titanic is still sinking, but it’s going down more slowly.

Statistics are hard to make sexy, but the number crunchers at Deakin University who analysed the results of the 344 respondents don’t mince words.

They found what they call “a highly statistically significant difference” between how Warrnambool businesses feel about the future compared to those in other Victorian regional cities like Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong.

The difference was this: in 2011, 63% of local businesses felt they were either faring ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ compared to other cities, but in 2014 only 49% felt this way, which was a further slide from 55% in 2013 and 58% in 2012.

The researchers consider this “a continual and significant decline” but us lesser mortals might just call it terrible.

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The latest business survey reflects a lack of confidence in Warrnambool’s outlook compared to other regional cities.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] A [/dropcap]t the same time, in 2011 only 11% of businesses described their future as looking fair or poor. This year, that figure has almost doubled to 21%.

Again, this is not good news.

The survey also revealed “a significantly worsening trend” when it came to business owners looking at opportunities for further investment in their business in the next 12 months. More than half (51%) said that their prospects were low to very low.

Then there was the sobering response to this very simple question:

“What is your confidence in Warrnambool’s business environment over the next twelve months?”

In 2011, 43% of people said high to very high. This year, that number had almost halved to only 24% and another 26% said “low to very low”, with the rest feeling pretty average.

Is this what we aspire to for our beautiful city? To have business confidence levels that are low to very low, or average?

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Sails flapping in the wind: the struggling Bayview Plaza reflects a much larger problem facing the city.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] T [/dropcap]he sense of melancholy is not just confined to retailers – the business professional and commercial services industry is as equally distressed.

In 2011, a cheerful 77% of people working in this field felt either “good” or “excellent” compared to their regional counterparts, but this has since tumbled to just below 50%.

But even they look upbeat compared to the service, electricity, gas, construction and wholesale sector. Again, in 2011, a healthy 71% of respondents said they felt “good” or “excellent” – today that has plummeted to only 30%.

All of these figures might be interpreted by spin doctors as signs of “stability”, but they can be more truthfully described as pretty shocking.

And this is where we get to the troublesome part, because when the council refuses to name up the reality of the sentiment out there in the wider businesses community – as revealed by their own surveys – then nothing is done to confront it and change it.

Instead, the issue is reduced to fact sheets and media releases that tell us things are “stable” and we all breathe a sigh of relief and move on, because to point out the problems leaves you exposed to claims of being negative, or “only making it worse”.

Yet none of us can avoid the obvious signs of decline: like the ‘for lease’ signs all over town, the loss of locally owned businesses that have been around for decades, the vacuous arcades that cannot be filled, the depressing state of Bayside Plaza with its vandalised toilets, and its torn shade sails flapping in the wind over Merri St.


[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] W [/dropcap]hat is needed is not a head in the sand approach, hoping things might just right themselves, but a wide-ranging, open, community discussion on what is not working, why and how we can all work to improve it.

It is not as simple, unfortunately, as whacking traders with a new promotional levy or sprucing up two blocks of Liebig St.

While the Liebig St upgrade is a welcome rejuvenation of at least one part of the main street, it is a little like reupholstering the lounge chairs on the Titanic.

The harder questions to ask and to answer are those like these:

* what sort of retail mix do we want in the CBD and how can we encourage this mix?

* are commercial rents too high compared to other regions?

* what can be done to assist more small business start-ups?

* would more people shop in the CBD if there was free, timed parking?

* do the almost-empty arcades need to be remodelled or removed?

* how can local businesses be assisted to sell online? (Only 46% do and this has not changed in four years.)

I would like to see the council host a Warrnambool 2020 forum where we map out, as a community, a vision for our CBD by 2020 and how we can all work together (business operators, landlords, the council, thinkers, artists) to start turning the boat around before even more passengers jump ship.

[box]You can download the full Warrnambool Business Confidence Survey here (2mb) and the council’s media release here.[/box]

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11 thoughts on “Behind the spin, W’bool business is losing heart”

  1. Here is the solution believe it or not. It is called ‘Renew Newcastle’ and WCC know all about it and the benefits but it looks like there may need to be community pressure exerted to save Warrnambool’s CBD in the same way that Renew Newcastle have already saved their city. Carol, this is the solution that addresses all your questions.

    “Renew Newcastle was established to find short and medium term uses for buildings in Newcastle’s CBD that were vacant, disused, or awaiting redevelopment (they has 80 vacant shops in their CBD).”

    “Renew Newcastle aimed to find artists, cultural projects and community groups to use and maintain these buildings until they become commercially viable or are redeveloped. Renew Newcastle was not set up to manage long term uses, own properties or permanently develop sites but to generate activity in buildings until that future long term activity happens.”

    And guess what. It worked …. and still works. It’s all here: You have to watch the video as well.

    In the interim, there is another small Warrnambool project that aims to address empty shops fronts – and it just might take off. It’s called ‘Warrnambool CBD Shop Fronts’ and the aim is to have vacant Warrnambool CBD shop fronts covered with high quality artwork by creative local artists. Details are here: The artists are now starting to submit their designs and they are quite incredible. I cannot wait to see them mounted in the vacant Warrnambool CBD shop fronts. I am also sure people will want to come into the CBD to see all the new artworks – happy and WOW art.

    Whilst WCC seem to be putting all their focus into City Renewal by solely changing the infrastructure, they are not recognising or doing anything about what the people need. More people will come into the CBD when there are more people (shop keepers) contributing IN the CBD. Again, that comes straight out of the Renew Newcastle success story. It was and is a brilliant moving story because it was about the people – not footpaths.

    1. While I support the idea of beautifying lanes and empty shopfronts in the CBD, why is the default option painting art? I would love to see more hand crafted goodies, more sculpture, more variety in the things to look at.

  2. Warrnambool’s property market is also in the doldrums, with prices falling over the last 5 – 6 years, yet I have not heard any recognition or discussion of this either. WCC continues to increase our rates by 9% (I think) each year, despite lowered prices. Council rates have traditionally been conservative, but ours are now at the point of being higher than the actual value of the property. Demand for property in Warrnambool is very low compared with the rest of Victoria. Why has this significant issue not been addressed – more heads in the sand?

  3. I recently had a conversation with someone who was looking to rent a shop space in Warrnambool. All they got from a number of landlords was a lack of willingness to work together to get their vacant shop rented. You would think there wasn’t too many people looking to rent a shop property these days so I’m very surprised there was no offer to negotiate rent prices or offer a month rent free just to have their vacant shop filled. Until this mindset changes how can we expect a thriving bustling town that encourages and promotes out of the box thinking.

  4. That’s interesting, Carol, as my rates went from $2,317.21 last year to $2,572.70 this year, an increase of 10.43%. Would it be possible for you to follow this up when you have time? If the increase is supposed to be 5.5%, why have my rates gone up by nearly double that amount? I notice I am unconsiously shaking my head every time I talk or think about WCC!!

    1. Hi HC, This sounds like the result of an increase in the valuation of your property. The rates formula can be confusing, in that while the overall rate rise (ie. the amount in the dollar that everyone pays) increases by 5.5%, the impact on individual properties will depend on their individual valuation. I would suggest dropping down the council and asking for more information on your situation.

  5. Dear Warrnambool,
    Opportunities abound….
    What if the people of Warrnambool became more important on the streets than the cars?
    What if community places were created where people, plants and animals liked to be?
    What if retailers primarily stocked innovative local origin products?
    What if industry was driven by local needs?
    What if Warrnamboolism was developed through conversations with strangers?

    Can I encourage all to be diverse, open minded and local in their approach to a new Warrnambool. Improvement won’t rely on one solution but many.

    It is up to us all to nurture and create the sense of ‘place’ that we all crave!

    1. I totally agree with all that you say.
      Warrnambool is a city bursting with potential but sadly going backwards due to inaction and a council which is totally out of step with reality. Council cannot even put Welcome on the entrance signes to our city. Live stream our council meetings and hear and see the ideas which are consistently dismissed through a 4/3 divide.

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