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April 29, 2021

Gouger Street traders fear a slow COVID recovery

Seventeen per cent of Gouger Street shopfronts were empty in September last year. The dining strip has mildly rebounded, but traders are still worried the worst could be yet to come.

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  • Words and pictures: Angela Skujins


Lili Sun opened Gouger Street restaurant Hot-Spicy Kitchen with her husband in 2015.

We’ve come to Gouger Street to speak to traders about some data released by the City of Adelaide at a committee meeting this week, which we have presented to Lili.

In a quarterly report presented to council at a committee meeting this week, data showed how the vacancy rate has changed along some of Adelaide’s premier retail strips, with a rate for June 2018, September 2020, and April 2021.

Rundle Mall experienced the mildest swing, with a 6 per cent vacancy rate in June 2018 growing to an 8.3 per cent vacancy rate in September 2020, which has remained the same at April 2021.

Neither Rundle, O’Connell nor Hutt streets have recovered from their post-lockdown September 2020 rate, and in fact Rundle Street recorded a worse vacancy rate in April this year, sitting at 14 per cent.

The largest swing was recorded on Gouger Street, which went from a 6 per cent vacancy rate in June 2018 to a 17 per cent vacancy rate in September 2020. The April 2021 rate for the strip shows the vacancy rate has rebounded back to 13 per cent, but this is of little consolation to Lili.

CityMag graphic compiled by City of Adelaide data


We show Lili the data, but she’s convinced the situation is more dire.

“It’s worse than 13 per cent empty,” she says.

“I’m worried about the future of Chinatown. You can see it on my face. I’m worried as to whether I have enough customers to come in, and whether I have enough sales to support this business.

“Also, I’m worried about not having enough staff. When the border opens I know a lot of students will go back to China and we’re going to lose customers, we’re going to lose employees.”

Lili says “a lot” of potential workers, such as international students, will go back to China when international borders open, but she says she’s feeling the effects now. Lili and her partner are working seven days a week to fill a large rostering gap.

“I can’t find anyone to help me,” she says.

“I also know my neighbour, they were open seven days and have to close two days. They don’t have enough employees. We have the same problems”

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Business confidence is also low, she says.

“The ongoing charges to run a business are quite expensive,” Lili says.

“Prior to COVID people were here all the time. But then people start to realise, it’s not that easy.”

At the beginning of the year, the City of Adelaide released data which showed more than half of North Adelaide and CBD business owners are worried about the future of city’s economy and their business’ ongoing viability.

According to Lili and another stalwart trader, this fear still exists.

John Veloudos has owned Zuma Caffe on Gouger Street for 27 years and says the rents are “too high” in this area. Although shopfront vacancies have been stemmed for the minute, he worries the trend could worsen if the market doesn’t even out.

“The rents are too high for the amount of traffic that’s down here… but I hope the market will just even out naturally,” John says.

“The [Adelaide Central] Market rents have been very high for a long time. They’ve been pushed up to cover council revenues and things like that.”

Adelaide City Council elected member Simon Hou

City councillor Simon Hou actively represents the interests of Chinatown and told us in January the business community here was feeling the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When we ask Simon about the data presented to council this week, he says Gouger Street’s large number of hospitality businesses, which were severely impacted by last year’s lockdowns, and “people losing business confidence” could explain September’s soaring vacancy rate. But he says things could improve if action is taken to stem what he sees as “increased” empty streets.

“I’m aware of one property asking for really high rent and I don’t think there’s any operators who would like to set up their business there with a full renovation,” Simon says.

“Firstly, they need to pay a high rent, and then they need to pay the very expensive renovation costs. Unless your business is going to do well, why bother?”

In an effort to bring more patrons into the area, Simon recently proposed a motion to establish a night market within the Chinatown precinct. The motion was unanimously supported by elected members.

“I [will] try to bring more activities and events back to the area and I try to encourage either the council or [Adelaide Central Market Authority] as the Adelaide Central Market management authority, to offer free car parks on a few different evenings, like Thursday evening. So we can bring people back in town to give the local traders more support,” he says.

The administration will present Adelaide city councillors with further information on the city’s economy in mid-May.

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