By Sean Car
While the City of Melbourne has committed $45 million towards the renewal of Queen Victoria Market (QVM) during the next financial year, questions have been raised regarding the future of many of the market’s traders post-COVID-19.
Like so many businesses, the impacts of coronavirus have been hard felt on the market floor with general merchandise traders, as well as those operating along String Bean Alley, having been forced to shut up shop.
While fresh food traders have been able to continue operating as essential services during COVID-19 lockdowns, the futures of many specialty traders remain uncertain as management and the council continue their focus on the market’s renewal program.
To support market traders and their families during COVID-19, QVM management provided 100 per cent rent relief in March for a period of three months with a “likely extension beyond July 1” currently under review.
As the state government begins to ease restriction measures from June, QVM CEO Stan Liacos said permanent QVM traders would be able to return to the market “should they choose to do so.”
However, the president of the Friends of Queen Victoria Market (FOQVM) lobby group Mary-Lou Howie told CBD News that many traders felt QVM management was operating on a “go-slow” policy.
“The thought is that management is trying to get the renewal through at the expense of the general merchandise traders who are hurting at present,” she said.
“We believe that priority is being given to ‘point of sale’ at present i.e. under bench refrigeration in fruit and veg stalls, rather than helping general merchandise traders get back on their feet.”
Ms Howie accused management of adopting a “wait and see” policy. “There appears to be no commitment to opening, or vision,” she said.
Mr Liacos said that management had contacted more than 300 general merchandise traders during May and was committed to ensuring the market continued to serve locals as it had done for more than 140 years.
“We are continuing to work individually with all our specialty traders to discuss their plans on returning to the market,” he said.
“Their feedback and the guidelines provided by the government will help us in refining our strategy for reopening the Upper Market and a return date for all general merchandise traders in the open sheds.”
“With over 300 individual and largely family-owned businesses who have been unable to trade at the market for some time, we understand the transition back to the market will vary markedly between traders.”
Mr Liacos said management’s priority in the COVID-19 recovery was working with existing traders to encourage and help them adapt and be flexible in meeting the expectations, needs and demand of local customers, rather than tourists.
“Our initial focus on the reintroduction of non-food trading will be a sharp focus on local demand. We will clearly not see the return of domestic and international visitors for some time yet,” he said.
“Our market curation approach in the first phase of reintroduced trading will be determined by a heavy emphasis on meeting local customer demands and priority given of those traders that can and want to trade on multiple days rather than on select single days.”
Mary-Lou Howie said that management had left it “very late” to be surveying traders.
“As always, the devil is in the detail,” she said.
“The traders are in still the dark about when they are coming back, who is coming back and specifically on which site they are going to be located. You know what they say about real estate, it is location, location, location. It can make or break businesses.”
“Unfortunately there is no transparent process in place as their used to be; a clear framework for traders as to their entitlements and placement concerning re-entry into the QVM environment.”
On May 26, the $238 million Queen Victoria Market Precinct Renewal program’s quarterly report was accepted by councillors, which contained an overview of the status of the program’s key projects.
“As at 31 March, 2020, the total Queen Victoria Market Precinct program expenditure since 2013 is $29.21 million and the total expenditure for financial year 2019-20 is $5.83 million,” City of Melbourne CEO Justin Hanney told CBD News.
Headlining its $168.5 million capital works program as part of the 2020-21 draft annual budget, Mr Hanney said $45 million would be spent on the renewal this year.
“This includes $25 million towards the Munro development and $11 million towards restoring the market’s heritage sheds,” he said.
“We will invest in planning for enhancements to the Dairy Hall, Meat and Fish Hall, Food Court and Elizabeth St terraces.”
Long-awaited restoration works of the market’s heritage sheds also began on May 25 across Sheds J, K, L and M and will continue until December.
During the first stage of works the upper market will operate across sheds A to F, while market management works with traders across sheds C to M on trading location.
“In line with previous commitments to traders, there will be space for traders to return to the market when they are able to do so,” a council spokesperson said.
“The logistics of restoration works will continue to be worked through as COVID-19 restrictions ease further and restoration works are completed.”
Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the council would also be continuing to progress key elements of the renewal, including new trader facilities, open space at Market Square and delivering 500 new car parks as part of the Munro development.
“Due to the impact of COVID-19 on visitors to the market, we’ve accelerated these important restoration works to reduce disruption to traders and customers,” Cr Capp said.
“The market’s sheds will now be restored by 2022, which will reduce the timeline and disruption by approximately eight to 12 months.” •