Towns on brink due to mass business closures

REGIONAL Queensland "main streets" are at the brink with retail experts fearing mass closures across struggling city centres in the coming months.

Small businesses, the lifeblood of the state's regions, were already doing it tough, but are now struggling to rebound from the crippling COVID-19 pandemic.

Frustrated traders are calling for the State Government to hand down a budget and for the borders to reopen to help stimulate jobs and tourism.

Most regional areas recorded low or no coronavirus cases, but business leaders told The Sunday Mail they were still 'caught in the vortex' of the health crisis, with forced shutdowns and travel restrictions.

Angela and Brendan of The Sleep Factory, based in Gladstone. Businesses in that regional city have been hit hard by COVID-19.
Angela and Brendan of The Sleep Factory, based in Gladstone. Businesses in that regional city have been hit hard by COVID-19.

"Regional CBDs are being hit harder than capital cities," National Retail Association CEO Dominique Lamb said.

"If you don't have an active landlord or an active council, it can become difficult, because you could have a myriad of closed stores around one open store."

But Ms Lamb said the worse could be yet to come, warning October could be catastrophic for these battlers.

"If people really do stop spending in that notoriously quiet period before Christmas we'll see mass closures," she said.

In Gympie, COVID-19 added to the already tough business conditions.

Chamber of Commerce President Tony Goodman, who owns homewares store Bella Cassa in the CBD, said local retail had been in recession for 18 months.

"Before COVID-19 kicked in the economy was quite fragile," he said.

"Some businesses are doing quite well, but a lot of others are basically gutted and severely struggling."

In Gladstone, about 25 shops sit empty in the main streets of town.

Alowishus manager Amy Baldwin has seen a turnaround in business since COVID restrictions started to ease. Picture: Paul Beutel.
Alowishus manager Amy Baldwin has seen a turnaround in business since COVID restrictions started to ease. Picture: Paul Beutel.

LJ Hooker commercial agent Mark Spearing has worked in the area for 22 years and said coronavirus had hit the town hard.

"We've basically had zero cases in Gladstone … but we're just caught up in the vortex of COVID-19," he said.

"It's frustrating for a regional town like us."

Despite the interruption, Mr Spearing said the resilience of Gladstone business owners was in no doubt.

"Major industries still crank on, we're the engine room of the state," he said.

In Townsville, disappointed business owners are calling for the State Government to hand down a budget and "provide a pathway" out of "economic armageddon" before Federal Government support ends in September.

"The concern for us, like everyone is when the government funding ends … and there are zombie businesses surviving on government payments now," Chamber of Commerce President Michele Falconieri said.

"That's going to be a critical time in Queensland."

Mr Falconieri said Townsville remained optimistic, with the opening of its $250 million stadium in February.

Gladstone’s CBD is littered with for lease signs as it struggles to attract new businesses.
Gladstone’s CBD is littered with for lease signs as it struggles to attract new businesses.

Each regional town faces its own issues, but they all agree - the key to kickstarting their economies is tourism. 

However, some Queensland regions claim they have been left out of the campaign to reboot Queensland.

Rockhampton Mayor Margaret Strelow said the city felt "stabbed in the ribs" when airlines offered heavily-discounted fares to Cairns, Whitsundays and Townsville - bypassing the beef capital.

Cr Strelow said Rockhampton had pinned hopes of a quick economic rebound on the thousands of visitors that were expected to drive the Bruce Hwy to their town.

"Some areas in the Rockhampton region have done better than you would have expected … we've had good results in mining and construction," she said.

"Like everybody else though we've had strong hits in accommodation and food services - 700 jobs lost there and 450 in retail."

Cr Strelow said Rocky was "not the horror story", but acknowledged the city's CBD was struggling.

The difficult environment continues in tourism-reliant Mackay, where some businesses are recording a "post-restriction boom" while others, mostly in the hospitality, holiday and retail trade, are on the brink of collapse.

Chamber of Commerce Secretary Sarah Miotto said the effect on Mackay, including part of the Whitsundays region, had been catastrophic to the tourism industry.

She said the extent of the COVID-19 damage won't be known until JobKeeper ends in September.

Bundaberg's CBD is littered with "for lease" signs. Commercial agents say there are about 45 vacancies and Chamber of Commerce president, Tim Sayre, said many more were "under pressure".

"We've got business hanging on by the skin of their teeth, who have begged and borrowed money from any place they can to keep the doors open," he said.

Mr Sayre said the border closure was hurting and called for Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to relax restrictions.

Some towns are more optimistic. Maryborough and Toowoomba appear to be bucking the trend.

Toowoomba Chamber of Commerce president Harrison Humphries said members were optimistic for the future, but acknowledged there were pockets of trouble in the CBD.

Maryborough has just completed a beautification of their main streets, which had benefited businesses.