PLAN IN PLACE: Mayor Paul Antonio said the council's economic development team was working on a program to activate vacant CBD shopfronts.
PLAN IN PLACE: Mayor Paul Antonio said the council's economic development team was working on a program to activate vacant CBD shopfronts. Kevin Farmer

Make Toowoomba CBD 'destination': Plea to fix vacancies

A REAL estate consultant has called for immediate action after a report detailed "enormous" levels of vacancy in the Toowoomba CBD.

The Ray White Between the Lines Toowoomba CBD and Retail Strip Overview report, released last month, showed CBD vacancy of 18.66 per cent along Ruthven and Margaret streets.

Ray White Commercial Toowoomba sales and leasing consultant Mark Wynhoven said the report was concerning.

"If something is not done now these vacancies will continue to increase rapidly. It's all about CBD confidence and unfortunately nobody has that right now," he said.

"Residents would cringe to think of the CBD as a ghost town, but the reality is there are many around (the region). The only way we are going to change (this perception) is if we take action."

Toowoomba CBD vacancy, as seen along Margaret St, April 18, 2019.
Toowoomba CBD vacancy, as seen along Margaret St, April 18, 2019. Alexia Austin

Of the 155 prime street front properties surveyed, the number of clothing and soft goods stores had halved over the past year, dropping from 12.09 per cent to 6.55 per cent.

Similarly, furniture and houseware retailing had also declined, dropping from 17.92 per cent a year ago to 10.32 per cent in March.

The report attributed these drops in representation to an array of factors, including increased competition from Grand Central, online shopping and the relocation of larger stores in the area.

"There are a lot of good plans in the pipeline that are very slow," Mr Wynhoven said.

"The Toowoomba Regional Council has an activation plan that no one has implemented.

"There's not enough pressure or noise to get it done."

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The report also stated that "food retailing continues to occupy a smaller than average area along the strip despite the number of new establishments".

Mr Wynhoven said shorter lease periods in the CBD was a factor in the frequency of store turnover.

"The bulk of the pain is being felt by CBD tenants, and those are largely mum and dad operators," he said.

The only industry to maintain its stake on the main strip was the service industry, which occupies 28.14 per cent of the retail space.

Mr Wynhoven said the although there was a myriad of issues, making the CBD a "destination" would help to rejuvenate the precinct.

"The CBD is not a destination right now, but it needs to be one," he said.

"It would be great if we could do something similar to the Brisbane CBD, which has its own website and media.

"If we could promote the area as a destination, we could get more people to walk the street - which would boost numbers in the stores."

Toowoomba CBD needs upgrade: Back in 2016, Margaret Street business owner, Rhonda Theodosis, said she was concerned about the state of the street, it's affect on business and job opportunities in the inner city.

Toowoomba Chamber of Commerce CEO Jo Sheppard said the report highlighted the need for a "mix of strategies".

"It has been a tough period for the CBD, but if you look at CBDs in regional towns across the country you will see that the problems are not unique to here," she said.

"We need to incentivise businesses staying in the CBD and for new businesses to move there.

In regard to the shifting make-up of the area, she said there would always be changes to the mix of businesses.

"I'm looking more holistically at what opportunities there are to fill the vacancies," she said.

"There are a lot of positives about the area, one of them being that staff like working in the CBD. They can walk to coffee shops or duck off and do Pilates in their lunch break. There is a vibrancy.

"There is still a lot of interest from businesses in the area."

Ms Sheppard said one of the main challenges facing businesses in the area was parking.

"It's not just a challenge for customers but also for businesses trying to provide for its staff," she said.

"There is a private developer that has lodged an application to build a carpark in the CBD, which will be for long-term leasing. Council are always considering the needs of individuals, so I think we do need a mix of time-frames for the public car-parks."

Mayor Paul Antonio said the CBD was in a "period of transition" due to the redevelopment of Grand Central.

"There have been a number of businesses who have moved from the main street into the centre although fewer than might have been anticipated," Cr Antonio said.

"Toowoomba Regional Council remains committed to keeping the CBD as the vibrant heart of the region as evidenced by the $150 million invested over recent years in public place improvements."

Cr Antonio said the council's economic development team was in the process of initiating a program to activate vacant shop fronts using the Renew Newcastle model, the aim being to keep downtown streets active and interesting during this period of adjustment.

"To achieve this, council is working closely with the Chamber of Commerce, as well as a number of other organisations, to ensure the CBD remains a vibrant and attractive destination for local residents and visitors to our region," he said.