No miracle cure for Grafton's bypass blues
LIFE AS I KNOW IT
YOU may sense some deja vu this week as it's coming up to three years since concerns about the impact of the bypass on Grafton City came up in this column space.
And that concern has barely faltered since.
The highway works are certainly progressing in leaps in bounds, but most of the previous issues identified as not being helpful when it comes to Grafton's ability to cope with the pending 13km bitumen snub, remain exactly the same.
The entrances to the town are still as scrappy and unwelcoming, some of the same run-down buildings are still run-down, and empty. Businesses that should be concerned about the bypass don't seem to be diversifying in any noticeable fashion from a customer's perspective (hint: the only perspective business owners should be concerned about) and signage is far and fleeting or just plain confusing.
Whether we like it or not appearance is everything we it comes to wooing people. And that's what 13kms of diversion is going to need, some serious wooing.
The recent visit by the bypass expert seemed to identify two camps, the people who are actively engaged with the pending change in passing traffic habits and those who just want to complain about it. Overall the response was underwhelming when it came to proactive, collective response by the people who will be impacted - that being all of us.
You don't have to be a business owner to have a vested interest in this place. Workers and residents also should. Plenty own property and make up the critical mass that drives local business which in turn drives the economy of a place, its services and the level of services it receives. This is not new news but it feels necessary to espouse it over and over given the C-words that tend to hang over this place -- complacency and criticism.
Complacency is a killer but criticism, when constructive, can be helpful, particularly if it's followed through with ideas and solutions. But when it's just a reflex response because it's easier to blame someone or something for what is essentially progress, then you and your business are going nowhere fast along with the city in which it trades.
Having said that bypassing regional areas is not new so where's all the detailed information for businesses and people to learn from? In areas like Kempsey and further south councils have invested in this kind of micro-data to find out things like exactly which kinds of businesses will be most impacted by a bypass and what they can do about safe-guarding it. Precedents are wonderful things to learn from when you are unsure about what lies ahead.
It's fine to talk about successes and failures in bypass world but this needs to be broken down into easy to digest, morsels of information that can be directly applied to individual business plans.
People thinking about moving here need to be reassured we know what we are doing and that setting up a new business in Grafton makes good sense, financially and socially.
We don't want our only new arrivals to be the ones serving jail sentences. We want people confident in where this historic, well-located regional city is going. To have pride in the place.
Seeing successful operators has a contagious effect. If someone can nail a business plan in the current climate then other complementary examples can pop up around it and ride that success.
Ditto for the day the bypass opens. Just do your research before you go in with all those ideas blazing.
We all know what a successful long-term operator looks like. There are lots of people coming and going from their business, all hours of the day and on weekends (because they are open). They are selling something people want. In some cases, something they didn't know they wanted until that business arrived.
On the flip side sometimes you can walk out of store here in Grafton that is selling the same stuff, sometimes quite literally, that they have been trading for years. The only reason you venture in there is because no-one else has what you want but this seems to be a fluke rather than down to astute marketing. Fine if that helps to turn enough profit to stay open but often you are the only person in that store and you have to wonder how the hell they make a living now let alone after a bypass.
Long time locals tend to put up with ordinary service and products because of loyalty or lack of venturing elsewhere but there's no future in this customer approach given the reality of life and the fact it has an end-date.
Grotty facades, torn and faded awnings, mouldy walls with peeling paint, dusty shelves and products, they're all out in Grafton's business district world and it's not the kind of face we can afford to be putting out there in this new you beaut bypassed world.
Collectively businesses and commercial landlords owe it to the city to get their act together now.
There is plenty of inspiration out there on the web, free advice and articles if you look, and tips to take your businesses into 21st century retail climate. Lots are doing it but plenty don't appear to have budged.
It doesn't mean spending your entire savings but it might means spending a few thousand reinvesting in your business plan, or in the landlord's case, reinvesting your rental income back into the infrastructure from whence it came.
To borrow from the JFK handbook of phrasing - you don't only owe it to yourselves, you owe it to your city to get this right.
Otherwise ignore at your peril but don't blame the bypass or council or the guy next door for ruining your business or leaving your commercial premises empty.
Look what's happening outside the boundaries of Grafton and learn from it. Just don't expect the answer to be delivered on a silver platter by someone else the day the bypass opens.
Collectively we can do better - that's a C-word that will make a difference.