Night bars, speciality shopping on the cards in market rebirth

By Brendan Rees

More events, eating options and enhanced specialty shopping could be on offer at the Queen Victoria Market in a bid to lure more visitors to the historic landmark.

Under a five-year Future Market Strategy released by the market’s management, customers could also be treated to more seasonal fresh local produce, bars, and evening dining.

The strategy, which sought public consultation, aims to support the market’s recovery from the pandemic while preserving its heritage, character and “core offer that people love about the market”. 

Queen Victoria Market CEO Stan Liacos said the strategy would seek to attract more Melburnians, which was critical to the viability of traders and the market as a whole.

“It has been an extremely challenging 18 months for the market and traders, however through this strategy there is a bright future for our beloved Queen Victoria Market,” he said.

“What is clear from the feedback is we must find the balance between making necessary changes to meet modern standards and expectations, while preserving the heritage, character and core offer that makes the market so special. Our strategy strikes this balance.”

“I want to thank the hundreds of stakeholders who provided feedback on our draft strategy. We are buoyed that the feedback has been generally supportive and encouraging of our direction and plans.”

Other features proposed in the revival plan include enhanced retail arrangements with more placemaking, seating, weather protection and pedestrian-friendly spaces.

There would also be more hospitality opportunities to enjoy food and drink onsite and take away as well as produce sampling, quick/casual food, and some parts of the market opening in the evening.

Other key components include supporting current traders, attracting new innovative businesses, improving safety and environmental sustainability. 

Under the plan, a new trading format would see an enhanced specialty shopping experience in a new “Melbourne Makers” precinct at upper A shed (orientated towards the Victoria St shops) to showcase local, ethical, social and artisanal products. 

The strategy relies on the City of Melbourne’s $250m major Market Renewal Program, which is restoring the market’s historic structures and improving facilities for customers and traders.

It comes as the City of Melbourne approved a new trader shed in April, while a suite of storage and refrigeration units were endorsed by the Future Melbourne Committee in June, which also saw councillors back a plan for a multi-site project at the corner of Queen St and Franklin St including a new 20-storey residential and retail tower. 

A key aim of the strategy will be to keep current customers and visitors while enhancing the market’s experience to attract more Melburnians, particularly those in the inner city and under 40-year-olds, who are considered “relatively underrepresented” customer groups. 

However, in her submission to the draft strategy, UN consultant Dr Jane Stanley, who researches markets in developing countries, outlined a number of key recommendations including reviewing the Queen Victoria Market’s operating rules as well as fees and tenure arrangements to rebuild trader trust and in turn help grow their customer base.  

She stated certainty about future fee levels was essential in relation to planned improvements otherwise there was the “risk that traders will drift away”.

Dr Stanley also called for a skilled person with international experience in the operation of world-class markets to be recruited as the market’s manager to “bring the interests of traders together and work collaboratively”.

“The failure to prioritise expertise in market operations runs the risk that the realities of market operations will be misunderstood, and that the market will be turned into a different type of retail experience which destroys the original entity,” she wrote in her submission.

Research showed visitation levels had plummeted by 44 per cent last year due to a large absence of tourism and events and stay-at-home restrictions.

The fifth lockdown in July has also been a blow to traders, just as visitation levels had begun to pick up following a two-week circuit breaker lockdown in late May, which QVM said had been a “rapid recovery than previously seen”. 

A statement from QVM said management had provided substantial rent relief for traders throughout the pandemic with support from the City of Melbourne. 

Trader Bruce Pham, a second-generation owner at sock stall Bruce Goose, whose sales were down by more than 50 per cent, felt not enough was being done to enhance the market and more “unique offerings” was one way to attract new customers.

“I see a lot of people walk past, they just don’t bother while other markets like South Melbourne, they’re so beautiful, it’s inviting,” he said.

“What’s the uniqueness of the market that you can highlight that separates us from a shopping centre?” he said.

Mr Pham, who began working at the market with his parents in 1991 at age 13, felt the market was “going backwards” and he was trying his best to “solider on”.

“I’m trying to progress, trying to improve but when you’re not making any money it’s very hard,” he said. 

“I want the market to succeed; I want to be proud to be here,” he said, adding the extended lockdown last year was a “great chance to revitalise the market” but “they didn’t do anything”.

Amanda Schulze, who runs Books for Cooks, said one of the difficulties the market faced was how it could meet customer expectations, which had “changed dramatically,” particularly after lockdowns which broke people’s normal routines. 

She said people had become more “time-poor” compared to 20 years ago when customers had to fight for a car park at 6.30am. 

“Whatever it is, they’re needing it [their time] to serve multiple functions,” she said. 

“How do you make sure that the market is evolving to suit modern tastes?”

“No matter how much of a heritage aspect you have about a market … unless there’s money being spent on the ground it won’t survive.”

The strategy was finalised following a six-week trader and public feedback process on the draft strategy released in April. 

The City of Melbourne declined to comment on the strategy as it was managed by QVM •

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