THE Upper Hunter is considered one of the richest electorates in the state, so why aren’t our streets paved in gold?
A Fairfax Media investigation has revealed almost 50 empty shop fronts adorn the main thoroughfares of Singleton, Muswellbrook and Scone.
In Singleton, there are 22 vacancies in John Street, as well as an unoccupied hotel, restaurant and service station.
Neighbouring Muswellbrook is almost a “ghost town” on some days with 16 available premises in Bridge Street.
That doesn’t take into account another three pubs, which have recently shut their doors.
At Scone, a dozen unfilled sites line Kelly Street, along with one service station.
St George Bank also closed its branches in each of the centres, too.
But, there doesn’t appear to be any definitive explanation for the current woes, despite the so-called resurgence in the mining industry.
Statistics show a large percentage of employees in that field didn’t actually reside in the electorate, which ultimately affects the flow-on benefits for the “local” retail sector.
Or, has online shopping done most of the damage, along with high rents?
Singleton Business Chamber president Sue Gilroy admitted the situation was a “concern”.
“I can understand why people are worried,” she said.
“I’d love to see a thriving John Street.
“However, life is so busy these days.
“Residents tend to look for convenience – and shopping centres provide that.
“To be honest, I don’t really know the solution to the problem.
“Maybe council needs to attract more [business] people to town.”
Ms Gilroy said it wasn’t all doom and gloom either.
“There’s no doubt the economy is improving,” she explained.
“The recent acquisition of Singleton Town Square might help, too, especially on the other side of town.
“Unfortunately, though, the hubs are the shopping centres.
“And, that takes people away from the main streets.”
Real estate agent Mac Dawson, from Ray White Scone, stated the town was going through a redevelopment stage – and predicted a bright future.
“I’m not surprised to hear we have 12 vacancies in Kelly Street, but this number has actually improved in the past year,” he said.
“That should decrease to approximately eight-nine in the coming months.
“We have the opportunity to turn Scone into a prominent destination if done correctly with the town revitalisation.”
However, Mr Dawson admitted the business sector had its work cut out for it in the short-term.
“Scone’s main street is tired and untidy, with dirty gutters, while the uneven road creates trip hazards for people crossing the street,” he said.
“There’s also an uneven footpath due to old pavers which have sunken over the years, as well as garden beds falling apart and full of weeds.
“First impressions, at the end of the day in business, are everything.”
Mr Dawson pinpointed a number of reasons for the current situation.
“Unfortunately, in the day of being able to turn to your phone or computer and simply purchase items cheaper and have them delivered to your front door, main streets in general – across the board in regional areas – will suffer due to this,” he said.
“Although not specifically connected to Scone, another example of this are major shopping centres.
“For example, Muswellbrook Marketplace and Muswellbrook Fair take away a large component of the main street [foot traffic] in Muswellbrook.
“In Scone, we only have the Coles shopping complex but that still takes five shops away from Kelly Street.
“Currently, due to the New England Highway, Scone’s main street can be very dangerous for families wishing to shop with inadequate parking and the increased traffic.
“This also limits the hospitality sector from being able to utilise the front areas of their lovely properties.
“A lot of empty properties in Scone need work, which the owners expect tenants to complete when tenanting the property.
“There has to be a happy medium in rental price between landlords/tenants.”
But, he did offer a few solutions.
“I believe regular street-sweeping and cleaning of footpaths, gardening, re-levelling of trip hazard pavers in the main street by Upper Hunter Shire Council is vital,” Mr Dawson said.
“We’ve been located in the main street for more than eight months now – and not once seen the footpath cleaned.
“We also need a progressive business house group to work with council, the revitalisation committee and the business owners of Scone.”
Muswellbrook Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Mike Kelly said his organisation was “concerned but not alarmed by the vacancies in the CBD”.
“Muswellbrook’s CBD has been going through a transformation for many years and particularly in the last decade,” he explained.
“With the heavy vehicle traffic through town, it’s become increasingly difficult to attract shoppers.
“In fact, there has been a gravitation towards the satellite developments at Muswellbrook Marketplace and Muswellbrook Fair.
“This will be difficult to counter until the Muswellbrook Bypass is approved and built.”
Mr Kelly admitted other factors came into play, too.
It included the lack of connectivity between the Muswellbrook Marketplace and Bridge Street; older premises in the CBD with absentee landlords that were reluctant or unable to upgrade their buildings; and online shopping facilities like Amazon.
“The fledgling developments like the Tertiary Education Centre, which have not yet attracted significant numbers of students, teachers and visitors to the CBD; and the improved access for shoppers to Newcastle and the Central Coast with the opening of the Hunter Expressway have to be considered as well,” he said.
“But, all is not lost.
“Despite the empty shops, the Muswellbrook economy is solid and enjoying a resurgence since the mining downturn.
“Many local businesses have upgraded premises and many are trading online.
“Unemployment is at historic low levels and demand for skilled labour is high and increasing.
“Muswellbrook is experiencing almost 2 per cent annual population growth and the property market has improved dramatically in the past year or so.
“The [Muswellbrook Shire] council’s long-term plans for the CBD and the Muswellbrook Bypass are expected to make a dramatic difference to the attractiveness of the town centre for shoppers and visitors alike.”
In the meantime, the MCCI is pushing for a firm commitment from the RMS (Roads and Maritime Services) to prioritise the bypass for federal government funding.
“We’re also continuing to promote our Shop Local, Trade Local, Enjoy Local, Play Local campaign, which is being embraced by chamber members and is growing business-to-business activity,” Mr Kelly said.
“We are working on more facets to this program, which is directed to residents and shoppers.
“It is so important for everyone in Muswellbrook to understand that every dollar spent here increases local employment, supports business development and improves shopping through a broader range of products and services.”