Retail

“Blood, sweat and tears”: Business furor over construction disruption gives rise to calls for better communication and creative solutions for SMEs

Matthew Elmas /

Whether it’s Victoria’s ‘big build’ or the NSW government’s enduring light rail project, disruption from major infrastructure projects is causing major headaches for small business owners.

Last month, the problem was humanised again when Gareth and Emma Grierson, owners of the Red Door Bakery, liquidated their Croydon-based business in South Australia, blaming a government-backed road project.

The small business owners operated bakeries in two locations and a side catering business, but were forced to shut up shop after disruption from the construction works affected both bakeries due to increasingly difficult access for customers.

“[They] don’t look to protect small business when there are capital works projects that rip the heart out of a business and the community, we have poured our blood, sweat and tears into our business, we employ 30 people, why don’t their jobs count,” the Griersons said in a statement via social media.

“We as employers have sold our family home (which we had before we opened the business) to try and keep the doors open and keep people employed, but business has not picked up and the debt accumulated, people change habits when they can’t get access and its hard to get them back.”

The Grierson’s aren’t alone — business owners across the country have been suffering from the fallout from extensive construction work in Melbourne and Sydney.

Cafe chain Piccolo Me, which has seven stores in Sydney’s CBD, changed its expansion strategy last year and began focusing on western Sydney after finding that extensive works were hampering its business.

Melbourne’s ‘big build’ has also drawn the ire of small business owners in Victoria, the state’s small business commissioner, Judy O’Connell, says.

“Infrastructure projects are great and at the end, everyone agrees it is fantastic, but the first thing the small business owner knows about it is the jackhammers out the front,” she tells SmartCompany.

O’Connell says she’s received numerous complaints from business owners about the effects of construction work lately.

Grievances range from stores being obscured to dirt covering streetscapes and even tradespeople parking in customer spaces.

“Parking is a huge issue,” O’Connell says.

Dirt on the streets, carparks filled

Last week O’Connell released new guidelines for construction companies and government bodies to assist in minimising the impact of works on small business owners.

They include creating designated areas for tradespeople to park and other disruption mitigation strategies, but O’Connell says communication is the biggest thing she’s trying to address.

“Even if there’s nothing going on, it’s about still communicating with businesses … if they don’t hear, the Chinese whispers start,” she explains.

“We had one down in Victoria where it was going to take six months, then at the end of the six months, they realised it was a lot bigger and it was going to go further.

“The engineers must have known much sooner, [but] it wasn’t until the last day that they advised business owners that it would take an additional six months,” she says.

In the Grierson’s case, the South Australian Government isn’t obligated to pay compensation, while in NSW, businesses have already come together to file a class action over the light rail project, which they say has harmed their trade considerably.

More than 60 businesses have joined the class action so far, seeking over $40 million in compensation.

Getting proactive about helping business through disruption

But in Melbourne, some creative solutions are coming to the fore.

Bec McHenry, founding director of place activation consultancy The Space Agency, agrees communication with businesses is key to successful construction projects.

McHenry works with project coordinators on finding “proactive” ways to minimise disruption to business owners during project work.

She believes potential solutions can go beyond government compensation or temporarily shutting up shop.

“We’re seeing that the business-as-usual approach is not no longer good enough,” she tells SmartCompany.

Parklets have been installed in Melbourne to help improve access. Source: supplied.

McHenry is working on giving space back to local businesses affected by construction disruption, helping them open up temporary pop-up shops or overseeing the creation of parklets to improve customer access.

She says when customers can be enticed into shopping around construction spaces, rather than avoiding those areas, everyone benefits.

“If you have people interacting with your site, you behave better,” she says. “You see yourself as the front door to the city.”

Has your business been disrupted by construction? Let us know at [email protected]

NOW READ: Sydney businesses file $40 million lawsuit against NSW government after light rail construction forces business closures

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany.

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