Ballina Greens councillor Jeff Johnson has spoken out over plans for a substantial new council commercial development.
Last Friday the council advertised in the Financial Review seeking developer input into a plan to redevelop its Tamar Street car park and Wigmore Arcade.
‘Council wishes to facilitate the redevelopment of either one or both of the sites and is seeking expressions of interest from developers who have the vision, experience and capacity to undertake innovative retail development,’ the ad reads.
The down-at-heel arcade on River Street in the centre of town could certainly do with an update although, despite the current retail downturn, it is 90 per cent occupied – according to Ballina Council’s commercial services manager Paul Tsikleas.
But Mr Tsikleas says the Ballina CBD has been hit by ‘changing retail fashions’ and the increasing move to online retailing, and council has a responsibility to redevelop the arcade to draw people back into the centre of town.
He said council was prepared to go it alone on the redevelopment but also wanted to test the water to see what ideas developers had for the site.
He believes that while people ‘buy widgets online’ they could ‘enjoy a different retail experience – food or entertainment orientated,’ if the arcade were demolished and rebuilt incorporating a food court and other facilities.
‘If you can’t make a really good location work in that environment, you’re not exploring things as you should, he told Echonetdaily.
Mr Tsikleas added that many councils around Australia were looking at ways to revitalise their CBDs.
‘We’re looking to unlock benefit and potential value of landholdings for the ratepayers,’ he said.
But Cr Johnson says the planned demolition and rebuilding of the arcade, on land bequeathed to the council many years ago, will do nothing of the kind.
‘The land is valued at $6 million currently,’ he told Echonetdaily. Much of that is because it is in an area zoned for up to five stories. But the current proposal doesn’t envisage anything like that. In fact it doesn’t involve increasing the lettable area much at all. The rents are already set at a commercial level, so how are the ratepayers going to benefit?’
He added that if Council wanted to improve the life of Ballina CBD it didn’t have to invest in developments to do it.
‘I can’t believe we’ve got council-owned vacant shops in the heart of town when we could have sculptures and exhibitions in pop-up galleries – that’s more of a cultural experience than buying your ham at a deli.’
Despite two vacant shops in the arcade, Mr Tsikleas ruled out pop-up shops and galleries at this stage, although he said it could be a consideration if shops became vacant on short-term leases.
All the leases on the arcade’s shops expire in December but Mr Tsikleas is not concerned he will see a mass exodus if they are only offered periodic tenancy.
‘It’s not unusual. Ballina Fair was on periodic tenancies for 18 months to two years until it was sorted out.’
But Cr Johnson fails to see how turning out good paying tenants (Wigmore Arcade brings approximately $500,000 per year into council’s coffers) would improve matters.
If the redevelopment did go ahead, ‘shop-owners with existing businesses would have to move, causing great upheaval,’ he said.
‘Council has lost focus on its core priorities. Its developments in the last eight years have not been making money. Millions of dollars of ratepayer money has been diverted into speculative, low-yielding commercial ventures.’
In one recent example he said council spent $500,000 on a scheme that would have included multistorey carpark and office space without first doing a feasibility study.
‘We couldn’t find a tenant and had to cancel it. Meanwhile, council has signed a $500,000 contract to design an indoor sports centre, with no money allocated to building it within next four years.
‘If the arcade were sold, that $6 million could bring $4 million in government grants, and we could put that money into community infrastructure.’