AS in so many things, strength in retail is in numbers and contrary to appearances, the number of operating shops in central Fremantle is proportionately increasing – but only due to shop numbers decreasing. The solution to the CBD’s retail vacancy rate has been revealed: demolish. Please explain!

Well, with the levelling of the “Point Street” site, corner of Adelaide Street and the current reshaping of Atwell Building and Arcade, there are currently about twenty-four shops fewer to count, many formerly – well, overlooked. Should new shops replace them? “No”, is the immediate response. Yes, more retail strength would be most desirable, however building a new shop does not necessarily guarantee a built-in tenant, which anyway could represent more competition, while alternatively new shops in planned developments for the CBD could encourage inter-shop swings and roundabouts old to new, leaving one deserted.

Although High Street Mall ones will have to be reinstated, tenanting them with quality retailers will prove a difficult exercise. Finding a major attractor not already represented at nearest centres is a considerable challenge. In the clearly changed Fremantle shops situation, just as it is not so much a situation of too high rents but rather of too few customers, now there are not so much too many vacancies, but too many shops. Despite those recently removed premises the actual percentage of vacancies is still disappointing. An addition to the new retail reality is the burgeoning number of central city’s cafe, bar and restaurant temptations plateau-ing toward unsustainability. Ways have to be found to draw regular custom from beyond the present horizon.

For too long Fremantle has seen itself as competing with other centres, while the gravitational pull of those now immense and growing centres, notably Garden City and Gateways, has drawn traders and customers away. Claremont Quarter is of some concern, but less directly. Even the once-threatening Phoenix Centre is being denuded and shows signs of slipping into victim-hood. Fremantle is not in competition, it should recognise it has not been for a long time and should stop trying; it is itself and has its own unique offer and must concentrate on that. Driven by the debilitated look of the Mall, the town hall has been moved to set up discussions with property owners in the centre and it is to be hoped reality will prevail in negotiations to make those properties more attractive to tenants and to the public.

Mayor Brad Pettitt has been making efforts to consult and to expedite that, along with Economic Development and Marketing – Manager Tom Griffiths. Finally, the town hall may be activating. Distance is not a great consideration when a shopping centre contains a vast range of attractions and is therefore a destination in itself and Fremantle’s supporting population catchment is shrinking because of that. Under amalgamation, citizenship numbers will be increased but people will not be moved closer.

Fremantle Central is a naturally air-conditioned shopping, services and entertainment centre with location, facilities and attractions others envy and that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Therein lie the primary strengths and focus which must be developed and promoted, but quickly.

by Colin Nichol

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