Small businesses in Docklands have welcomed a City of Melbourne decision to waive outdoor dining fees, but for many hospitality traders trying to get back on their feet after lockdowns “the war is not over”.
Councillors have endorsed an extension of the outdoor dining program until October 31, after city activation portfolio lead councillor Roshena Campbell led a motion saying, “Many businesses are still struggling as we move into the winter months” and it wasn’t “the right time to impose that fee burden on them.”
Cr Campbell said outdoor dining “has been critical” for small businesses that had been “hard hit” by the pandemic.
“They’re concerned about ongoing consumer confidence and early this year 74 per cent of them told us they were struggling to survive,” she said at the council’s March 29 meeting.
Permit fees for outdoor dining fees have been frozen since the extended outdoor dining program began in October 2020 and were due to be reinstated on April 1.
However, while Docklands traders said the council’s waiver was “all helpful”, the need to fill staff shortages and see a return of office workers five days a week was crucial to their survival.
“It doesn’t really get people back at their desks, it just eases their cash flow,” Peter Mastro, who co-owns Saluministi café in Bourke St, said, as he spoke on behalf of small businesses regarding the council’s waiver.
“Things are definitely better but they’re not where they need to be,” he said.
“Sadly, I think a lot of that is down to the fact that a lot of places have closed and haven’t reopened.”
“The war is not over … I feel like it’s survival of the fittest; we did everything we could to get through every lockdown and never close etc., etc., and get through all the dramas.”
“I don’t think there’s a magical answer. I think it’s time and patience.”
Tess Polidano, co-owner of Cafe Esc, which is located within the ANZ building in Docklands, said large firms supporting a hybrid working model for their staff were impacting their small business.
“Workers usually come in Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, on which you see a bit more flow but on Mondays and Fridays, it’s dead,” she told Docklands News.
The council can push [for workers to return] but it’s really the companies that have really got to be tough on their workers instead of all this leniency.
“People still go to the football, out for dinners, and they can’t go to work.”
It comes as the ANZ, NAB and the Australian Taxation Office – which have offices in the Docklands precinct— revealed plans for a staggered return after the state government lifted office mask mandates and advice to work from home.
Shane Wylie, executive officer of the Docklands Chamber of Commerce, said over April there had been a “noticeable but still small increase in pedestrian foot traffic.”
“Docklands as a whole, has been sitting at less than 40 per cent of pre-COVID levels. April has been much higher due to the Formula One and school holidays but that’s still the truth of foot traffic,” he said.
“The Playground [a family-friendly free event at the New Quay precinct] was a perfect example. It drew in beautiful crowds of families and great numbers but didn’t translate relationally to an equal increase in patronage of restaurants and retailers.”
“There’s certainly been spikes well above this but the irony at present is that the increased traffic due to activations, the F1 accommodation crowds etc., didn’t transfer to a relational increased spend in Docklands and those retailers who did take advantage of it were often short-staffed.”
Mr Wylie said the council’s initiative to hold off fees for outdoor dining was “very welcome” and allowed hospitality to trade “as best they can right now without having to worry about another bill.”
But he added, “What I have personally noticed is that there is now an increased gap between those businesses doing well and those not.”
“There’s no short-term solution to this – it requires long-term thinking to change the face of Docklands from corporates during the week and then visitors on the weekend, to a week-long destination for everyone from everywhere.”
Last month, the City of Melbourne launched a campaign calling on all job seekers to consider applying in the CBD after Lord Mayor Sally Capp acknowledged the city was desperately in need of staff in the hospitality, tourism, and retail sectors.
According to SEEK’s data, there were 5410 hospitality and tourism jobs advertised within the CBD – a 180 per cent increase on 2019’s figures.
“We want to entice more people to our city and help traders serve as many customers as possible, and outdoor dining is one way we can do that,” Cr Capp said •