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CBD revival cannot be done at the expense of suburbs: Mayors and business leaders.

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Cafes in suburbs from Bondi to Bankstown have benefited from having residents work from home.CREDIT:FLAVIO BRANCALEONE

Local mayors and business leaders warn that the abrupt end to working-from-home arrangements and a focus on revitalizing the central business district could lead to the loss of the benefits made by suburban businesses during this pandemic.

After the COVID-19 public order, which required them to allow work from home, was lifted last week, significant employers, including the NSW government and Commonwealth Bank, have instructed staff to be ready for a return to the office. The mask mandate expired on Friday.

The Business Council of Australia is one of many groups calling for a revival of Sydney CBD. It lobbied for the relaxation of restrictions at the CBD Summit held by the NSW government earlier this month. Premier Dominic Perrottet stated that the government was looking at “bringing life back into the CBD,” which would mean easing restrictions and red tape in the short term and coming up with a long-term plan.

Mayors and chambers o commerce from other parts of Sydney warns that the suburbs must be part of any economic recovery plan. Not just those areas that were “local government areas in concern” last year.

Ryde Mayor Jordan Lane claimed his state government counterparts had “their hearts at the right place,” but he held a “contrary viewpoint.”

Cr Lane stated that there is nothing more satisfying as a local mayor than seeing local cafes and restaurants crowded because people have chosen to work from home and are choosing to have an after-work drink at a local café or restaurant over one in the CBD.

People in NSW can return to work in CBD offices without masks from the start of March amid a major easing of COVID-19 restrictions in NSW. CREDIT:KATE GERAGHTY

“I can understand the logic behind those pushing for CBD activation. But as a suburban mayor, the activation should stay here in Ryde.”

Darcy Byrne, Inner West Mayor, stated that the NSW government has “become fixated on CBD.” However, the NSW government has been in decline for years. The lockout laws and the George Street light rail construction predated the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cr Byrne stated that Sydneysiders showed their desire to get out and about in their communities and weren’t comfortable using public transport. The government should recognize the enormous economic opportunity of driving COVID-19 growth from the suburbs.

Cr Byrne stated that many owners of hospitality businesses believe that the rise in lunch-time business from people working at home has helped them offset losses from night-time trading, even during lockdowns. They’re doing a great job, but they are still struggling, and the government is needed to help revive Main Street activity.

Cr Byrne stated that the government has spent millions on CBD activation grants and should match this investment with alfresco dining and live performances in the neighborhoods.

Rob Stokes, the NSW Minister for Infrastructure, Cities, and Active Transport, stated that the government is already investing in COVID-19 rehabilitation across the state via the $66 million Alfresco Restart Package. The Premier also announced last week $400 million to support a WestInvest program that will benefit councils in South-West Sydney and Western Sydney.

Mr. Stokes stated that the NSW government had committed millions of dollars to all areas, with a particular focus on those communities who were most affected by the Delta Lockdowns. “I look forward to seeing Greater Sydney’s streets come alive over the next months – from Burwood and Bankstown.”

Parramatta Lord Mayor Donna Davis stated that Parramatta had not received any support anywhere close to the level of Sydney CBD.

Cr Davis council was trying to revive Parramatta CBD through events like the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at Parramatta Park or a First Nations Hip Hop Festival. She represents 33 other suburbs with town centers, and she acknowledged that the trend of people socializing in the suburbs had benefited small businesses during difficult times.

Cr Davis stated that they have become accustomed to people coming down to the local cafes when they work from home. “We don’t want to be where these businesses are impacted.”

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Philip Ruddock, Hornsby Mayor, stated that he is open to receiving any additional support the state government offers to improve the Hornsby town center.

Although he understood why businesses might need employees at the office to improve collaboration, he hoped they would be flexible and offer some flexibility. He expected the transition to be gradual.

Anne Kenyon, president of the Hornsby Chamber of Commerce, said that many local businesses had found their groove catering to people who work from home. She also stated that they are frustrated by the “goalposts moving again” and worried about what might happen. She said that many workers were resentful of the “return-to-work” rhetoric because they had been working since childhood.

Wally Mehanna is the chief executive of the Canterbury-Bankstown Chamber of Commerce. He said that both the CBD and the suburbs are critical and must be balanced.

Mr. Mehanna stated that “any campaign to bring people back to the CBD must also mention the suburbs” and the local themes, strength, and offer.

Randwick Mayor Dylan Parker stated that Randwick’s major towns had seen a 23% decline in tourism. Local businesses were concerned that this might be made worse by residents returning to the CBD.

While there may be merit to a vibrant CBD, Cr Parker stated that it is not the entire story. “Major centers might have been, pre-COVID, the economic heartbeat of Sydney. But I hope that it isn’t the entire picture. It was an outdated way of thinking.”

Cr Parker stated that the future wasn’t about getting workers back into the CBD but rather about providing alternatives for them so they wouldn’t have to.

Paula Masselos, mayor of Waverley, said that returning to work in Waverley’s CBD office or other commercial areas like Bondi Junction was “a step toward some kind of normalcy that the community craves.”

Cr Masselos admitted that there might be a slight drop in trade for local cafes or restaurants, but people could still work from home for part of the week. International tourists would hopefully counter this.

Paul Nicolaou is the executive director of Business Sydney. He said that CBD revival was needed and that the “hybrid” model of splitting the week between a central office and working from home could be a solution to the concerns of suburban business owners.

Mr. Nicolaou stated that Sydney is the first port of call for overseas tourists when they visit Australia. He also said that Sydney needs to be a vibrant, exciting, livable city.

“Many people are doing three days of work in the city and two days at home. This is not going to impact the businesses in the local areas.”

This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Stokes, who said that he hopes hybrid work options will allow workers to “experience the best both worlds” – whether enjoying alfresco dining in Penrith or Pitt Street.

Cr Davis of Parramatta, however, warned that a hybrid model could lead to people going to the CBD on different days of the week.

Before the pandemic hit, childcare centers in wealthy areas saw higher demand for services on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays than usual. This was due to parents who work part-time or flexible hours.

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