Challenging times seem to bring out the best and the worst in people, and Byron’s small business landscape appears to be seeing plenty of both during the current COVID lockdown.
A series of interviews with commercial tenants and landlords in the Shire reveal tales of selfishness, generosity, and everything in between, as both groups try to navigate the stormy seas of the global pandemic.
The experience of the much-loved Pure Melt chocolate shop and cafe in Mullumbimby highlights some of the highs and lows of small business ownership in these uncertain times.
After six years serving organic coffee, chocolatey treats and ice cream to locals, Pure Melt’s owner, Sarah Wheeler, has had to close the cafe side of her business after being asked to pay 53 per cent more in rent.
‘It was within their rights to do it, but it feels wrong to me, given what’s going on in the world and all the effort I’ve put into the business’, Ms Wheeler told The Echo.
‘I thought “What’s going to happen to Mullum if I agree to this?”
‘What would I need to charge for a cup of coffee to pay that kind of rent?
‘It’s going to set a precedent, and I don’t want to be a part of that happening in Mullum.’
But Ms Wheeler’s landlords see things differently.
They say that the rent she was paying was quite low compared to other similar businesses in the town, and that the 53 per cent increase would have brought it into line with a similar business nearby.
‘We’re surprised at what the local rental market is throwing up at the moment,’ said the landlords, who asked not to be named.
‘We knew that we were heading into a storm [by increasing the rent], but decisions have to made and we’re doing our best to navigate a way through, like everyone else.’
Ms Wheeler disputes the claim that other, similar businesses in the town are paying $891 a week in rent, as she was asked to pay.
Difference of opinion
There is also a difference of opinion between the two parties over whether Ms Wheeler was given the chance to negotiate a new rental agreement or not.
Regardless of this, she has found a way to make the best of her situation – accelerating her plans to take the business to the next level, significantly improving her online presence and rolling out national distribution, while still supplying local shops and markets.
‘A lot of love and care goes into my products, and I want them to be available nation-wide’, she says.
‘If there’s one good thing to come out of this it’s that I now get the chance to focus on doing that’.
One of the biggest causes of consternation, and in some cases conflict, between commercial landlords and tenants, is the issue of rent freezes and reductions.
Commercial landlords can access significant financial support from the State government in return for waiving or reducing rents.
However, some local landlords have chosen not to help their tenants out.
‘The people that own the clinic I work at didn’t offer any COVID-19 rent support, despite us not being essential workers and not being able to see clients in the space’, one local healer said.
‘After weeks of not having work, I couldn’t afford to keep paying rent for my house and to rent the workspace with no income.
‘It’s very unfortunate, as I would think they would be getting government help. Anyway, I gave four weeks’ notice and no longer work there’.
Other landlords have taken the opposite approach. Artist Caitlin Reilly – owner of Gallery 3 in Ewingsdale and Container 13 in Bangalow – has taken to calling her landlord ‘Saint Bart’.
‘During the first round of lockdowns, he said just pack up go away for a couple of months rent free’, she says.
‘Then, two weeks prior to this lockdown, with the border shutting, I was starting to feel the pinch.
‘I sent him a text saying “would you consider a rent reduction?” and left it at that.
‘He called me 10 days later when the lockdown was announced and said, “I just wanted to let you know that we’re going to have six-week suspension of rent”.
‘He said, “The only way we’re going to get through this is as a community”.
‘He’s such a generous soul. He’s kept us alive’.
Caitlin added, ‘It’s worth letting the community know that there are landlords who are selfless and kind’.