Fremantle traders feel the pinch as shoppers stay away
Fremantle traders feel the pinch as shoppers stay away

Looking around his new surroundings, Steve McGrath is in a reflective mood.

A retailer in Fremantle for the past 17 years, he has been forced to downsize his indigenous arts and gifts business, Creative Native, to a smaller shopfront in High Street.

A tough call, he admits, but it was the only way to cope with falling trade.

"I've been here for nearly 20 years and this is the worst I've seen Fremantle," he says.

"I used to have four staff in here and now I've got one. There's just no foot traffic, there's just no reason for people to come down here."

On a visit to the Fremantle city centre, even the dreary winter weather failed to match the gloominess felt by shopkeepers.

In the past few months, at least six prominent retailers have closed their doors, including Betts, Jay Jays, Jeanswest, Rockmans and Millers.

Midland Disposal Store has moved to South Fremantle, other shops are understood to be considering their leases, and speculation continues that Myer will leave when its lease expires in the next 12 months.

According to locals, rocketing rents and a lack of residents and office workers are partly to blame.

But many say the City of Fremantle has also failed to capitalise on the glory years after the 1987 America's Cup, and describe the current suite of planning reforms as being 10 years too late. "Subiaco, they've concentrated on retail and they've really boosted the retail precinct and a lot of landlords have dropped their rents to keep people there," Nick Tsalikis, manager of Bodkins Bootery, said.

Mr Tsalikis, who has been in the job 15 years, said the city centre needed a face lift.

He also believed there was no big drawcard to attract visitors, while the cost and hassle of finding parking was also a deterrent.

"Admittedly, retail is very soft right across Australia and around the world … but it's just not happening here," he said.

When retailers try something different, says Mark La Hogue, who owns The Record Finder in High Street, they are criticised.

He was recently forced to turn down the speakers in his store after a complaint.

Betts Group national marketing manager Gino Premici said last week's decision to close the shop - where the now-national family business started almost 120 years ago - was not taken lightly. But it had become increasingly hard to justify keeping it open.

"In terms of Fremantle's trade, it's weekend trade and when you're (opening) seven days a week, it's hard to sustain that," he said.

Fremantle Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Nolin said though food and entertainment businesses were more robust, even they too would benefit from more people living and working in the port city.

But that was five to 10 years away. In the short term, the City of Fremantle needed to invest in making the area clean and safe.

In April, a council-commissioned report warned the city's standing as a retail centre was limited and recommended a new central business district master plan.

Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt said the council's anti-development attitude had shifted, with planning changes taking shape that aimed to quadruple the inner-city population in the next five years, increase retail floor space by 20,000sqm and boost high grade office space.

Dr Pettitt admitted this week that there was no doubt the CBD was struggling but the emergence of precincts such as Claremont Quarter and online shopping had not helped retailers.

He said the council was again set to assess parking policies and would step up marketing ahead of December's sailing world championships.

"I'm very confident that we can turn this around," he said.

The West Australian

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