A shiny, new creature is gradually emerging from the earth in downtown Byron Bay.
For the past 18 months, workers have swarmed over a large building site next to the Jonson Street Woolworths, creating a rolling soundtrack of construction noise that most locals are now used to.
The town is no stranger to development of course, but this project heralds something quite different – Byron’s first major shopping mall.
In approximately five months’ time, the doors will open on ‘Mercato on Byron’ – a multi-level centre complete with basement car parking, a cinema complex, and shiny shops catering to your every want and need.
Some see it as a welcome addition that will attract more visitors and create local jobs, while others bemoan a further ‘Gold Coastification’ of the Shire.
So what are we actually going to get?
At 7,895m2 set over two levels, not including the carparks, the combined floorspace of the development is much smaller than a Westfield-style mega mall.
Its design is less sprawling than the older-style centres at Tweed and Ballina, thanks to a double-level, 321-vehicle underground carpark directly beneath the shopping and entertainment area.
Plans for a bowling alley went by the wayside somewhere during the planning process, so the mall’s main entertainment feature will be a nine-theatre cinema complex.
Much like its three-cinema predecessor, the new facility will be run by Palace Cinemas, with its international and independent offerings.
There was due to be an art gallery included in the complex. However, this now appears to have morphed into an ‘open space for artisan market/gallery and performances’. Exactly what this is remains to be seen.
That leaves the shops – an aspect of the development that has been a source of considerable controversy since it was first proposed way back in 2013.
The concerns are twofold. Firstly, some are worried that the owners will quietly bring in one of the generic fast-food chains that the Shire has fought so hard against (and – with the exception of the Dominos and Subway on Jonson Street – it has done so successfully).
Just last week rumours swirled that Hungry Jacks was sniffing around the new mall.
When contacted by The Echo the agent responsible for letting the retail space, Sophie Christou from Raine and Horne Byron Bay, declared that no such plan was afoot.
‘I can say unequivocally that we have not been approached by Hungry Jacks,’ Ms Christou said.
However, exactly what shops will be included remains a mystery.
When asked to reassure the community that ‘neither Hungry Jacks nor any other major fast-food outlet will be part of the Mercato centre’, the owners were far from unequivocal.
‘Local tenants and unique minor chain operators have embraced the opportunity to participate in the project,’ was their reply.
The reference to ‘minor chain operators’ suggests that we can expect that a number of big-name-brand stores under Mercato’s roof in addition to the new Woolworths that was always part of the deal.
The Mercato developers provided The Echo a few further hints about the nature of the shops expected, declaring: ‘There is a variety of unique and exciting food offerings and other retailers already committed to participate… with approximately 68 per cent of the tenancies leased to date.’
‘Limited opportunities exist for a fitness/wellness operator, medical/specialist rooms, an Asian fusion food offering, a wholefoods/vegetarian cafe, and a juice/salad bar operator along with some retail spaces,’ the statement continued.
Doesn’t sound too disastrous, right?
Perhaps not, but it has nevertheless raised concerns about the impact on other shops in the town, many of whom are already struggling under the burden of soaring rents and overheads.
Deputy mayor Basil Cameron said the arrival of the mall ‘wouldn’t help’ existing local retailers struggling to make a buck.
‘I don’t think the mall is what we need, but the issue goes beyond that really,’ Cr Cameron said.
‘The Byron CBD’s success in lots of ways has been based on its proliferation of small, unique businesses. We’ve noticed that because of increasing rents and other pressures we’re seeing a disappearance of local businesses.’
Mayor Simon Richardson said he had worked closely with the developers from the start in a bid to ensure that they didn’t quietly bring in the notorious ‘golden arches’ or something similar.
‘There’s been a commitment from them that they won’t fill the place with chain stores and in our most recent meeting with them a few months ago that still appeared to stand,’ Cr Richardson said.
‘But as a council we can’t impose that kind of condition as a condition of consent.
‘Instead, we chose to maintain a decent relationship with the developer and influence their decisions for the good of the community as much as we could, rather than standing on the other side of the fence shaking our fists at them.’
One promise to the council that it appears Mercato’s owners will deliver on is the provision of a series of eco-friendly features within the mall that will make it the first regional shopping centre to achieve a five-green-star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia.
According to Mercato, the mall will achieve this by: ‘using natural light and ventilation as much as possible, having greywater harvesting and re-use, being built from material taken from the previous building, and having solar electricity generation.’
‘They could have plonked a Ballina Fair right there in the middle of Jonson St but they didn’t,’ Cr Richardson said.
‘We’re hoping that the green aspects of the mall will encourage others to do the same, so that the next developer down the road will say “okay, I might do that too”.’