Fremantle businesses are suffering under a crippling coronavirus shutdown

ABC

8th May 2020.

2020 was supposed to be Fremantle's year.

After a tough couple of years for many local businesses in the WA port city, business owners were enjoying an air of optimism.

New venues were gaining popularity, thousands of government workers were preparing to move into new offices in the heart of its redeveloped city square and cruise ship passengers were spending up big in the city.

Then the unthinkable happened in the form of a global disease pandemic.

Now the cash-strapped City of Fremantle is desperately trying to reimagine a Freo without tourists, cruise ships and festivals.

Shutdown came on brink of renewal

Much of the optimism centred around a new $270 million office building in the middle of Fremantle's Kings Square that was due to fill with 2,000 government workers.

"There was this real air of optimism in Freo at the start of this year because of the Kings Square project," Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt said.

"Something we have been working towards for a decade was finally coming to fruition."

But the coronavirus shutdown could not have come at a worse time.

"The very week that those government workers were coming down to Freo was the week that the state got shut down," Mr Pettitt said.

"It is devastating that so many of those businesses that have been holding on might not be able to make it through at least a few more months of pain."

More than ever, the city will need the Kings Square project to prove to be the economic lifeline it had always promised.

About 700 government workers should have been in the new building by now, but due to coronavirus more than half of those are not yet working on site.

The plan remains for 1,900 staff to be in the building by the end of June, which should bring a welcome boost for local retail and hospitality businesses.

Iconic Freo Markets sit empty

But Fremantle Chamber of Commerce chief executive Danicia Quinlan was still concerned some retail, hospitality and tourism businesses, which represented about a third of the local economy, would not survive the economic impact of the shutdown.

"A lot of businesses had come off three or four years of difficult economic times and so they did not have the resilience to be able to really survive this kind of impact," she said.

"The lack of cash at these businesses due to that economic challenge has seen a lot of businesses have the hearts ripped out of them.

"COVID, low cash reserves and challenges with landlords has just meant that for a lot of businesses we are waiting to see whether they will come out of it."

The timeline for reopening the Fremantle Markets, home to more than 150 stallholders, remains unclear.

The iconic markets in the city's heart should be a bustling hub of people brushing past each other.

But the distinct market smell is now missing, along with the tourists, and the stalls are empty.

Fremantle Markets chief executive Natasha Atkinson said the market needed about 10,000 visitors a day to be viable and it would likely stay closed until physical distancing rules were lifted.

"We have decided we will wait until the 1.5 metre rule is relaxed," she said

"We sell an experience and we don't want people coming and not enjoying the experience in the way it is intended."

Ms Atkinson said the markets were using the forced closure as a time to revamp, with a focus on attracting more West Australians when it reopens.

"We are surprisingly optimistic," she said.

Local customers will power revival

Stallholder Mandy Richardson has shifted her leather business to online sales and said government and rental assistance had been her salvation.

"The markets have not charged any of us rent so that has been great," she said.

"It is definitely going to take its toll on us and it will take a while to build it back up."

Ms Richardson said the market would rely on locals, as well as regional and interstate tourists, when it did reopen.

"If you came to Perth, Fremantle Markets was where you came," she said.

"Once the intrastate borders come down and people from the east coast can come back and visit, I think that will be really good.

"If we can have people from New Zealand coming over and holidaying here that will help everyone too."

Businesses get creative to help others

Fremantle bar owner Greg Leaver said his businesses relied on locals rather than tourists and he was optimistic it could quickly bounce back once restrictions were lifted.

But even if he is allowed to reopen, his business may not be viable while physical distancing measures remain in place.

"There has been talk of restaurants and cafes reopening, but with a limited capacity," he said.

"For us that is a really difficult decision because we need about 70–80 per cent capacity to be viable.

"The two weeks before we had to close, where we were limited to 30 or 40 people, it hurt us more than being shut.

Mr Leaver said the Fremantle business community had rallied together, with many finding creative and innovative ways to adapt.

His bar, Strange Company, was part of the Doorstop Dinners Fremantle project that funded local businesses to cook and deliver meals for the city's needy.

At the end of this month his other bar, Ronnie Nights, will put on a Facebook live music event in partnership with other Fremantle venues

Meanwhile, Mojos Bar has raised more than $65,000 online to help it stay afloat during the pandemic.

Council forced to slash services, jobs

Mr Pettitt said the coronavirus shutdown was costing the council about $2 million each month thanks to lost revenue from parking fees, commercial tenancies and cancelled events.

"If that continues for another three months into the new financial year, we are looking at a $15 million hit," he said.

The unprecedented hit to the council's budget has already resulted in services being cut back and staff being stood down and given pay cuts.

"Everything from public toilets, to mowing verges, to our CAT bus — all of those services we have had to pare right back," Mr Pettitt said.

"We are going to be relying on people from Perth because we can't rely on interstate and international tourists anymore."

Mr Pettitt said a range of measures would be considered to allow for the economy to fire back up with physical distancing in place.

"Do we widen footpaths? Do we spill the markets out onto the street?" he said.

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