If you’re a young South Australian with an entrepreneurial spirit, you must be shaking your head at the latest antics of certain members of the Adelaide City Council.
The previous council spent millions of dollars upgrading Victoria Square so that, instead of an unwelcoming wasteland of patchy grass and straggly trees, it has become a honeypot for events.
Before the upgrade, the square was Adelaide’s biggest roundabout and, at best, a place that pedestrians would traverse quickly on the way to somewhere else.
Now, human beings actually want to congregate there, in big numbers. And it seems that’s a big problem for some council members.
The Royal Croquet Club, virtually indistinguishable from other Fringe venues on public space like the Garden of Unearthly Delights and Gluttony, has become the lightning rod for council dissent (and unlike the garden, the club is run by South Australians).
New Lord Mayor Martin Haese had the club in his sights during the election campaign and after he won, questioning its impact on local “bricks and mortar” businesses.
Following the Fringe, he did a live cross from the square to ABC radio in which he tut-tutted about the state of the grass.
No matter that thousands of people were attracted to a new part of the city to enjoy hundreds of Fringe performances.
No matter that the turf in the east parklands after the Garden pulled up stumps is in exactly the same condition or even worse (see photo below). No matter that the Botanic Park turf is reduced to dust by WOMADelaide each year. (In fact, the council says it is “standard practice” for remediation works to be undertaken after events in the parklands and squares, with event organisers contributing to the repairs.)
Now councillor Alex Antic is also taking a mallet to the Royal Croquet Club, suggesting commercial events in the square are detracting from local businesses and that the club organisers didn’t pay enough (they paid nearly $60,000, a fee described ludicrously by hotels association boss Ian Horne as “peppercorn”).
Antic has called for an inquiry into what sorts of events should be able to happen in Victoria Square.
It is curious that no similar inquiry has ever been called into numerous other events held in the city’s public spaces, from WOMADelaide to the Clipsal 500. These events close off large parts of the parklands to those who don’t have a ticket.
The only difference seems to be that these other events are huge and established. The Royal Croquet Club is organised by a couple of young local entrepreneurs, who have run a similar event in Melbourne without controversy.
There were few complaints about the annual use of Victoria Square by the Tour Down Under, nor the Tasting Australia event held there last April, nor the many other events that have been hosted by the square since the redevelopment was completed (a council list shows a huge range, including multicultural festivals, fitness activities, charity events and launches).
I can only presume that some local business interests have got in the ear of the councillors about the Croquet Club, despite the fact that it was very different in 2015 compared to the inaugural event in 2014. The bar areas were reduced, the arts offerings were increased, and entrance to the square was free most of the time. But the naysayers still aren’t satisfied.
Ironically, the most significant “bricks and mortar” business to get into trouble in the wake of Mad March is at the other end of town, far from Victoria Square. The Stag Hotel, in prime position in the city’s East End, has ceased trading – but the Garden of Unearthly Delights remains uncontroversial. That’s unsurprising, because the East End is packed with people throughout February and March.
If traditional businesses can’t achieve a boost during Mad March, then something is seriously wrong with what they’re offering. Why aren’t more “bricks and mortar” businesses offering themselves as Fringe venues, for example?
It seems more likely that the massive influx of city venues attracted by the relatively recent introduction of the small-venue licence has eaten into older business’s trade. These aren’t pop-ups – they’re fresh, lively, “bricks and mortar” businesses.
In the case of The Stag, its troubles seem more likely to be the result of numerous excellent food and wine-focused competitors opening nearby in recent years, including an explosion of restaurants, bars and cafes in the Vardon Avenue/Ebenezer Place strip, Rundle Street and East Terrace. These businesses include a refreshed East End Cellars offering wine by the glass and food, the bar/bistro Mother Vine, Parwana, Hey Jupiter, Burger Theory, Street ADL and Orana, Golden Boy and Africola.
Add to that the taxpayer-supported corporate hospitality being drawn to Adelaide Oval and the revamped Convention Centre, and competition from “pop ups” is of relatively minor consequence.
As for Victoria Square and the Croquet Club, I can only assume it is being singled out by some businesses and councillors because it is new – in other words, it’s the target of a depressingly familiar brand of Adelaide conservatism.
After spending $28 million on the upgrade, the council is finally seeing sustained activity in Victoria Square.
Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t a fee of nearly $60,000 better than a big fat zero? For local businesses around the square, isn’t it a positive thing to attract a portion of the thousands of people who frequent the East End in Mad March?
The old square was drab, under-utilised and either ignored or lamented during Mad March and most other times of the year.
It was the city’s greatest embarrassment.
The new City Council is at risk of taking that mantle.
David Washington is editor of InDaily.
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