News / COVID-19

More COVID relief on the way for business

Council looks at pop-up spaces for artists in empty shopfronts

A woman passes an abandoned shopfront in Sydney Road last month.

Mark Phillips
Sunday, October 24, 2021

EMPTY shopfronts along Brunswick’s main shopping strips could be converted into temporary arts spaces as Moreland Council searches for ways to revive a local economy which has been battered by COVID lockdowns.

The council will investigate the feasibility of pop-up arts spaces following the adoption of a raft of relief measures to help businesses which have been struggling the weight of COVID-19.

The council will waive business registration fees for all of 2022 for businesses such as hairdressers, beauty therapists, tattooists, and some health-related businesses that are considered to be among the hardest hit by lockdowns.

All food businesses throughout Moreland – apart from supermarkets – will also have their registration fees cut by 50% in the first half of 2022.

The renewed COVID hardship package was adopted by Moreland Council at its October meeting.

Although the fee relief is individually modest and worth at most a couple of hundred dollars to a single business, it will cost the council’s bottom line by about $480,000.

Other elements of the package include extending the council’s financial hardship policy for the payment of rates for another 12 months, a three month rent holiday for not-for-profit organisations which are tenants of council buildings and $103,000 in grants for local artists and craftspeople.

The relief package follows a report to the council that warned the toll of COVID on small businesses in Moreland was widespread and significant.

“Lockdowns and related restrictions have had the most significant impact on the hospitality, beauty and education sectors,” said the report, prepared by the council’s Community Development Director, Eamonn Fennessy.

“Our bricks and mortar retail and hospitality shopping strips have particularly suffered with visits to shops and cafes decreasing and continuing to fluctuate widely as restrictions remain in place and a portion of the local workforce continue to work from home.”

A recent survey by the Sydney Road Traders Association found that almost one-in-five shops along Brunswick’s main strip were empty.

The area’s once-vibrant arts scene has also been impacted: in September, Brunswick art gallery Tinning Street Presents announced it would be closing immediately after more than a decade. It blamed ongoing lockdowns for the decision.

Councillor Adam Pulford said the arts community required extra assistance because they have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

Moreland councillor Adam Pulford.

“Not only did they lose so much of their work and their livelihoods last year, it’s also played out again this year when they and all of the community were hoping this year would be much different,” he said.

In addition to increasing grants to artists, Councillor Pulford successfully advocated for consideration of a program to allow artists to make use of vacant shopfronts.

He said the City of Melbourne, where one-in-five shops are also vacant, was pursuing a similar policy and the same approach had been adopted in the past elsewhere in Australia.

“We have had more businesses close during the pandemic leaving behind vacant shops and as life starts to return there’s an opportunity for council to facilitate the filling of shopfronts with artists and creators and startups,” he said.

“That will activate those shopfronts and give artists more space to work. Council in the past has been able to run a MoreSpace program to allow artists and creators to be able to showcase their work in shop windows, but not actually occupy the building as a working space.

“There ’s real benefits to actually giving artists space to create and having people in their to give new life to the shopping strips.”

The council will also redirect $24,000 from the budgets for the cancelled Coburg Night Market and Fawkner Festa to other arts projects and events in those communities.

But although the hugely popular Sydney Road Street Party will also not go ahead next March, no funding for replacement events was discussed by councillors last week.

Moreland has allocated more than $6 million since March last year to its local COVID response, including rates and fee relief, grants to community organisations and businesses and other support programs.

The council has also provided logistical and other support for COVID testing and vaccinations, and 300 people were temporarily employed by the council earlier this year as a result of a pandemic jobs program.

Fifty-four households in Moreland made up of 261 people required emergency food relief in September because they tested positive for COVID or were forced to isolate for 14 days.

“Agencies providing services and support to young people in Moreland have reported a growing and unmet demand, particularly for mental health support, but also in relation to social isolation, family violence, school disengagement and assistance required by those at risk of homelessness,” the council report said.

“People with insecure housing or employment have faced significant impacts and people with disability and their carers have experienced additional and unforeseen costs, with some facing extreme financial hardship.”