It was a triumph of hope and optimism over coronavirus reality, and so far so good.
A new shopping centre has defied all the odds to open its doors in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And despite two businesses having to shut the very next day because of new trading restrictions, everyone else is confident of success.
“The train had well and truly left the station when this coronavirus situation unfolded, and we were committed to opening at this time,” said Simone Talarico, the manager for commercial property and asset management agency Fitzroys, of the Riverdale Village Town Centre in Tarneit, in Melbourne’s outer west.
“Our anchor tenant Coles was keen to open and there’s so much work goes on in the background to deliver these projects on time. There’s a lot of legalities involved in a big lease and we were under an obligation, too, to the other tenants to open.
“By the time COVID-19 rolled in, everything was already in place, like the fit-out, and the stock of goods back of house – which were often, at the time, unavailable anywhere else.”
As a result, on opening day March 25, with the 1.5-metre social distancing rule strictly imposed by an extra contingent of security guards and local Wyndham police, Coles began trading at the centre with as packed a house as was legally permissible.
With dozens of pallets of additional stock stored in some of the neighbouring vacant shops, customers were thrilled to find lots of toilet paper, hand wash, hand sanitiser, rice and other products that had been in short supply elsewhere.
“Throughout this, people still really need supermarkets so it felt almost a community service,” said Ms Talarico.
It wasn’t such a happy story for everyone, however. The next day, stage-2 restrictions came into effect, so two of the smaller stores at the centre were forced to close – the nail salon Beauty Genesis and gym Anytime Fitness.
But other businesspeople who’ve been able to stay open, like Wayne Davis’s newsagency NewsXpress & Lotto, have found business so far to be promising.
It helped, too, that he began trading the day before the $80 million Powerball Lotto jackpot was due to be drawn and, with so many now buying goods online, he provides a delivery point for Amazon and courier companies TNT and Toll.
“It is a pretty tough time to be opening; it’s just bad timing,” said Mr Davis.
“But I thought, ‘Let’s go for it!’ We’ve opened with a rent-free period too, so we’ll have a chance to start trading and get established, which is a good thing.
“It helped with the Lotto timing too. In bad times, people still dream of winning Lotto. Someone’s got to win. Apart from that, the timing isn’t perfect, but it’s out of our hands.
“And, whatever happens, people still have to go to Coles to buy food, and people are more likely to shop local rather than going to a huge Westfield that might have 10,000 people walking through.”
Other stores now opened in the centre and the external street space around it are a mobile phone store, a butcher and a hairdresser. Other retail businesses getting ready to open include a chemist, laundromat, bottle shop, medical centre, Indian restaurant, pizza bar and chicken shop.
The town centre is part of the Riverdale Village masterplanned community, developed by APD Projects and YourLand.
Tarneit, about 30 kilometres from the Melbourne’s CBD and in the heart of the western suburbs’ growth corridor, has one of Victoria’s fastest-growing populations.
In 2017, it had 39,500 people and the population is forecast to grow to 92,000 by 2027, according to population researcher .id, an average annual growth rate of 9 per cent. Around 75 per cent of the land within the estate has already been sold, with 550 lots constructed and settled, and 200 lots remaining.
The main drivers have been the land being opened up for large-scale residential development and the regional rail link which opened in 2015, allowing a 30 to 40-minute commute to the city.
The decision to open at this time was a complex one. APD developer Tarek Abdulnour, director of Riverdale NAC Investments, said, “While public health and safety is our number one priority, we are also aware of the impacts of COVID-19 on the local economy and are trying to soften the blow of this as much as we can.
“We decided to open the centre not only to provide essential services to the local community who are struggling to find basic grocery items for their families, we also are trying to assist with providing 149 new jobs in the Coles supermarket, along with many other jobs that are servicing the residual tenancies who are allowed to remain in operation at this time.”
And, ultimately if COVID-19 does affect sales at the centre for its tenants, there might be a possibility of rent relief in the future too, said Ms Talarico. “Really, there are only two businesses that have had to close so far,” she said. “Traffic is quite steady at the moment, so we’ll play that one by ear.”
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