By Shane Scanlan
After nine months in the job, Queen Victoria Market CEO Stan Liacos has arrived at the same place as his numerous predecessors – that if the business and precinct is prevented from adapting, it may die.
The City of Melbourne’s ambitious renewal plans for the market are complex and they have raised multiple interests and opinions about the journey thus far.
But for Mr Liacos, there are really two types of protagonists in the debate – those who understand and respect that the market is first and foremost a place of commerce, and a narrowly-focused selfish few hell-bent on preserving it as a museum.
“Obviously heritage is central to the continuing viability of the place. It is one of the market’s unique attractions,” he said. “But, ultimately, its heritage is as a place of commerce – a place where traders do business with customers.”
“Opponents need to ask themselves what they plan to do with much of the market if parts of it become commercially unviable.”
“What will be the point of having beautifully-preserved open sheds all roped off and empty in parts.”
Mr Liacos acknowledged that some opponents of renewal were well-intentioned, but, if allowed, they would probably love the market to death. “Nostalgia will not save the market, only prudent adaptation, clever commercial thinking and new inviting public open spaces will do that,” he said.
He is a believer in the city’s plans for providing alternative operational and storage facilities. Earlier this year, Heritage Victoria refused to grant a permit for a basement underneath Sheds A to D, concluding that the market could continue to operate without them.
Mr Liacos said the plans for improvements were required to cut sky-rocketing operating costs, ensure safe practices, and to attract new tenants and innovation.
“For instance, waste management is currently conducted in Dickensian conditions, with people pushing small carts all over the place,” he said. “If more processes were mechanised we could cut our annual $5 million waste costs and inject an extra $2 million into marketing, promotions and events, which is what traders really want!”
He said new tenants were unlikely to be attracted to the open stalls part of the upper market until more fixed or semi-fixed “lockable” stall holdings could be offered.
Mr Liacos says up to 20 per cent of the open area could be used this way, which would leave enough “flexible” space for other “markets within the market,” including a planned “Made in Victoria” shed and for the booming ever-popular night markets.
“Younger retailers are just not interested in the old model of setting up each day and putting everything away at the end of the day, day-in day-out,” he said.
“They say to me ‘Stan, what century are you living in?’ and they’re certainly not interested in back-breaking labour,” he said.
The issue of fixed stalls has recently come into sharp focus, with opposition to more containers/pods being placed in String Bean Alley (M-Shed) on the southern edge of the upper market.
“Frankly, I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s a continuation of a process and vision that was started six years ago and they have been extremely popular and successful,” he said.
“I seem to keep saying this, but it is significant that QVM has 100 per cent occupancy wherever we have lock-up stalls and shops, and yet only 60 per cent in the open stalls.”
Mr Liacos said it was wrong to believe supermarkets were not in competition with market traders. “Supermarkets are part of the convenience economy and were continuing to gain market share with their long hours of trade and efficient logistics,” he said. And, with four currently under construction within a 20-minute walk of the market, further trade was at risk of being lost.
“I actually think it would have been wise to put a dry-goods style supermarket within the market precinct,” he said. For many years I note that traders and council wanted to ‘protect’ the market from a supermarket, but I actually think that race has been lost and a major dry-goods supermarket would be a complementary use that would attract and retain shoppers by providing an even more complete shopper experience.”
Friends of Queen Victoria Market joint convenor Mary-Lou Howie rejected Mr Liacos’s view of the market’s viability, blaming poor management for its declining business performance.
Ms Howie said management should target newly-arrived migrant groups as new tenants. “It’s about multicultural Melbourne,” she said.
(Mary-Lou Howie, above)
She said the market should always remain a “budget” shopping destination and rejected the idea of lock-up stalls as a way forward.
“They are trying to make it into something that it isn’t,” she said. “Change will happen, but it should be incremental.”
As reported elsewhere in this edition, a 40-member “people’s panel” has delivered its final recommendations.