CREATING VIBRANT TOWN CENTERS AND MAIN STREETS – Part 1

Photo credit: News Corp Australia

Part 1 – Issues

Main streets and town centres play a big role in the social and economic development of places and in the lives of people who live there. They are places where people work, shop, eat, drink and live. Therefore they contribute significantly to the health, well being and living standards of a community.

In Western Australia (WA), natural amenity has always been WA’s strongest comparative advantage, with pristine beaches, ancient forests’ and mineral-rich, ruby landscapes. However, our town centers and main streets lack that same draw and today, they are struggling to be vibrant places that support community connectedness and quality of life. 

Poor planning, capital works, globalisation and technology change have eaten away at the centrality of WA’s town centres and main streets. Shopping centers have become de facto town centers based on mass consumption, global brands, and car access.  As a result, WA’s town centres have seen sustained shop closures, indistinguishable offerings, reduction in community uses and localised jobs. However, planners, governments and community are all interested in making these places more desirable, vibrant and livable. Town centres and main streets need urgently to adapt, transform and find a new approach in order to survive.

This report is delivered in two parts using a combination of literature and observations to examine the perceived issues (Part 1) and possible actions (Part 2). The report is not intended to be comprehensive, and there will likely be much more that can be said on the topic. It also does not discuss the interventions that governments and communities have already supported, such as extended retail hours, alcohol licensing, community events and the town team movement that has already built substantial community vibrancy.

ISSUES

1. Shopping centres and attraction precincts

Shopping centres and the emergence of multi-attraction precincts have become de-facto town centres, offering a mix of retail, dining, activities, and parking all in one convenient location. Often located outside of the town centre where land is cheaper, they have shifted activity from our main streets and town centres. However, these precincts, but are generally based on consumption and add very little to community connectedness and social outcomes.

 2. Online retail

Ecommerce is booming, changing the way people shop. It is anticipated that by 2021, Australians will spend $35.2 billion online each year, fast becoming a big threat to brick-and-mortar retailers (Australia Post, 2019).  Customers may undertake ‘showrooming’ to view an item and then buy the item online at a discount. The flipside of this is  webrooming, where customers search online before purchasing in person. While neither are new trends, eCommerce is rapidly growing and many small businesses have not adapted their business model. In reality, most retailers today require a multichannel strategy to reach different demographics and to allow customers to purchase on their own terms (Williams, 2019). 

3. Big brands 

The emergence of global and national retail and food chains have been used as an attraction ‘anchor’ for town centres and main streets by creating a signal regarding brand quality and certainty. However when town centres become dependent on global/national retail and food chains, they can crowd-out smaller businesses such as local boutiques and cafes for several reasons. For example, big brands may:

  1. their purchasing power to drive down the cost of their products to lower consumption costs which smaller businesses find hard to compete with; 
  2. typically afford larger rents and are thereby favoured by landlords and local authorities; and
  3. have a limited impact on local wages as profits are not held locally, and typically do not reinvest profits into the local economy.

Thus there to be more recognition of the dynamic relationship between small businesses that offer the vibrancy and uniqueness that attracts customers which then harness big brands.

4. Suburban landscapes

WA’s dependence on the low rise suburban lifestyle does not create the density required to enable the spark and liveliness seen in places such as European centres and global cities. Instead it creates significant urban sprawl that has a negative impact on both people and businesses. It also leads to longer commute times, higher carbon footprint,  traffic congestion, negative health impacts, and for businesses, overt peak and non-peak periods. 

Main streets and town centres require activation not just during standard business hours but also after work.  Stores, restaurants, gyms, and other businesses can only open if residents work in the centre and shop, access activities and restaurants after work. This also reduces commutes and makes more time available for exercise, community activities, and family time after work.

5. Landlords and fragmented ownership

Property owners and landlords are one of the most important as they control business entry and exits,  rents and the diversity of offering. However, their expectations can be out of kilter with the demand in the property market.  For example, landlords may favour bigger businesses or franchises that can pay higher rates, expect small businesses to match the higher of big businesses, and fail to adjust expectations after a dip in demand. If rents are out of kilter with the market, businesses may exit for cheaper rates elsewhere or indefinitely after experiencing financial hardship.

Disparate property ownership may also mean that main streets, town centres and shopping centres can be owned by a mix of individual landlords, property management firms, hedge funds and private equity. As a result, ‘fragmented ownership’ often creates a barrier to a coordinated response when challenges arise or when regeneration and revitalisation is required (Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, 2019). 

6. Capital works

The upgrading of local infrastructure will always be required to support growing and evolving community needs. However, governments sometimes deliver lengthy capital works programs that can be destabilising for small business. Instead of upgrades facilitating vibrant community centres, capital works can have a large financial impact on local businesses as foot traffic falls along with profits and even leading to business closures.

7. Shop closures and vacancies

Main streets and town centres are made up of businesses that sell primarily to the local economy, “which includes independent shops, chain stores, restaurants, hairdressers, and services like solicitors”(Centre for Cities, 2019). Thus the health of our main streets and town centres, need to be considered as an ecosystem. That is the health of a wide range of integrated local businesses. Shop closures and vacancies are not only a symptom of a struggling main street or town centre but they are also a cause. Empty shops can signal to the market that consumption or visitation is declining. As a result, a negative feedback loop is formed through reduced investment, availability of offering, and foot traffic and consumption that can reinforce a sense (and signal) of decline and neglect.

8. Business rates

Business rates are an important source of income for local authorities. In WA, rates  generate more than $2 billion each year (My Council,2020) . While there is now greater transparency on rate payments and the financial health of WA local governments, there is considerable flexibility in how local authorities set their rates. 

As the rate system encourages local authorities to grow their local economies and to be rewarded for doing so with extra revenue, it can skew local policy. This is because additional business rates can only be generated by constructing new buildings or increasing net floor space, and can have a  negative implication for town centres as efforts are directed into out-of-centre developments, shopping centres, and bigger businesses. In addition, business rates do not take into consideration technology changes with physical retailers paying more (Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, 2019).

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