It seems like Merimbula, one of the region’s key tourist towns, is undergoing an identity crisis.
A dozen empty shops are the most obvious symptom and have left people asking why the once-thriving seaside town is struggling.
Bruce Marshall is a Jindabyne-based investor who owns the buildings on the corner of Main and Market Streets in Merimbula. His property extends from the empty building which was last home to Waves restaurant all the way up to the old Woolworths.
“Why did I buy the Woolworths building?” Bruce asks, amused, “it was cheap because there is a perceived oversupply of retail buildings in Merimbula.”
Bruce, like so many, is not sure if Merimbula will ever return to its former popularity as a shopping destination, especially with Pambula to the south and Tura Beach to the north growing strong and developing their own specialties.
After three years of trading, clothing and homewares retailer Simone Villarroel closed the doors of her Merimbula shop front, ‘Pretty On The Inside’, on June 29. She puts the closure down to a low summer season last year.
“A lot of tourists I would see on a regular holiday basis stopped coming. The feedback I received was that the cost of accommodation in Merimbula was too high and that their families could go on holiday overseas for cheaper – people’s expectations of their holidays have changed.”
Simone’s decision leaves another empty shop in the CBD, adding to the anxiety some are feeling about their town.
High retail rents and speculation that having empty shops is somehow advantageous and provides a tax break for wealthy investors have been part of the local conversation.
A spokesperson for the Australian Taxation Office says “a loss is a loss. If you are losing money on a property, it’s unlikely you would be able to offset that at the end of the financial year, even if negatively gearing against other assets.”
Bruce Marshall says that the idea that landlords benefit from empty shops is laughable.
“Everything is negotiable and if someone comes to me with an idea, I might back it.”
Bega Valley Shire Council has been criticised for not anticipating and planning for the impact that developments around Merimbula have had.
In a letter to the chamber of commerce, landlord Robert Green wrote “when the Council allowed Tura to be enlarged as a shopping centre and Woolworths to add 20,000 sqm of retail space to the district, it created a major problem for retailers in the Shire and especially in Merimbula. There is now far more retail space in the Shire than there is demand for it.”
Bega Valley Deputy Mayor, Mitchell Nadin, lives in Merimbula and has also owned a small business in the town, ‘Dulcie’s’, which he sold about 18 months ago.
“Merimbula is not unique in having these problems,” Cr Nadin says “we are very concerned about supporting economic development shire-wide.”
Cr Nadin has a few ideas about how to beautify the main street and make traffic flow work better for small businesses.
“Right now, we essentially have a four-lane highway running down the main street. We have to make our shopping district more attractive for people to stop and walk around, we need more green space and we need to bury the powerline running down market street.”
Where to find the funds to do this work remains unanswered. Earlier this year, council applied for an $11.2 million grant from the Growing Local Economies Fund, part of the NSW Government’s $1.3 billion Regional Growth Fund.
A spokesperson for Member for Bega, Andrew Constance reports that the submission’s status is currently pending.
$11 million would do a lot for Merimbula’s morale but in the meantime, Cr Nadin says that council needs to put together some options for the public to consider and attack the problem from every angle, in stages if necessary, as the budget allows.
Lynn McColl, President of the Merimbula Chamber Of Commerce, sees lots of potential.
“Merimbula is a beautiful place an hour flight from Sydney and Melbourne but we cannot afford to be complacent. We must raise the standard of retail, hospitality, accommodation, marketing and promotions and especially our online presence in the Bega Valley Shire to maintain a competitive edge in a global market.”
As the push for a Bunnings Warehouse in Tura Beach continues, Merimbula’s struggle to balance its growth with staying a place that people want to live and do business isn’t over yet.
“Things change,” Bruce Marshall says thoughtfully “Merimbula’s population is still growing, will it grow back into itself? It’s a bloody good question.”