By GUY WILLIAMS
Three long-time downtown Queenstown business owners say the next six months will determine the fate of many like them.
One’s closing his restaurant for good, another says he’s staring at a ‘‘bloody long autumn’’, while the third predicts half the shops on his street will be empty by the end of this winter.
Darren Lovell’s legendary Beach Street seafood restaurant Fishbone would have marked 30
years in business this October.
But the resort’s second-oldest independently-owned restaurant will close its doors after tomorrow night.
A ‘‘devastated’’ Lovell wonders who’ll be left standing in the town centre when international visitors eventually return.
‘‘If you go down Beach St at 6 or 7 o’clock on any night, it’s dead.
‘‘The restaurants beside me are dead, it’s not just Fishbone.
‘‘Unfortunately, we’re all suffering.’’
It’ll be a shame for tourists if there are no independent restaurants left when the dust settles, he says.
‘‘It’ll be just the same sort of restaurants they can get in Auckland and Christchurch … I hope this isn’t the death of independent restaurants.’’
Lovell, who hit national headlines in November after penning a ‘‘Queenstown is not OK’’ opinion piece in Mountain Scene, reopened Fishbone three weeks ago as a ‘‘last shot’’ after a six-month pause in trading.
In its place he operated Love Chicken The Pop-UP, an offshoot of his Queenstown Central outlet in Frankton.
He’d hoped a trans-Tasman travel bubble would be in place by next month, but by the time he committed to reopening Fishbone, it was clear the bubble wasn’t happening.
It’s now clear the resort’s been ‘‘cut adrift’’ by the government, he says.
A turnover 90% down on last February, and a meeting with his landlord, sealed Fishbone’s fate.
His landlord has been ‘‘as generous as he could be’’ with rent discounts, but they aren’t enough.
‘‘I understand he has his own liabilities, and he needed to look after himself.’’
Lovell says he’s poured all his savings into the business to keep it going this long: ‘‘I’m more or less destitute.’’
He feels ‘‘devastated and heartbroken’’ by his decision.
‘‘Fishbone was more than a business — it was a passion and I’m completely gutted we have to close.’’
He’ll now focus his energies on Love Chicken, which continues to trade relatively well.
Locals are supporting businesses in Frankton, where it’s easier to park, but seem to have ‘‘abandoned’’ the town centre, he says.
‘Half Beach St outlets gone in six months’
A few doors down Beach St, The Jade and Paua Gift Centre has been operating for 46 years.
Owner Ian Caldwell has seen it all over that time — floods, fire, recessions, now a pandemic.
Like many downtown shops, his trade’s about 80% down on usual, and he’s dealing with the ‘‘double whammy’’ of a street upgrade for the next 12 months that’ll deter more potential customers.
But Caldwell reckons he’ll survive, ‘‘just’’.
‘‘I’ve prepared myself on the basis of what I’ve been through before.’’
He’s had support from his landlord, and from what he’s hearing around town, so have many other tenants.
‘‘Landlords have, in the main, been really good to the businesses; they need to cover their own costs.’’
The hardest part for him has been having to lay off seven staff members, some of whom worked for him for more than 30 years.
He predicts half of the shops in Beach St will be shut in six months’ time — either for good or put in hibernation.
‘‘I feel extremely sorry for some of the younger people who are having to face a reality of this nature.’’
One block south on Cow Lane, the owner of the resort’s oldest independent restaurant, The Cow, says he’s staring at a ‘‘bloody long autumn’’ with a fraction of his normal customers — all while paying 100% rent since the end of last winter.
Malcolm Price says his trade’s 80% down on usual for the time of year, and he’s going to shut at lunch time three days a week to cut costs.
‘‘The bar that sells $5 drinks is going really well, but everyone else is doing terribly.’’
Price says Kiwis are travelling, but not through Queenstown, although he notes Arrowtown ‘‘seems to be trading OK’’.
He puts it down to too few centrally-located camping grounds.
‘‘I’m sure we’d get a few hundred more in every day if they could stay at a camping ground in town.’’
Outlook’s ‘pretty grim’
Queenstown tourism business broker and consultant Adrian Chisholm says there isn’t a business in the Whakatipu that can survive on pre-Covid rent levels.
Chisholm says it’s commonplace now to hear of businesses doing between 10% and 20% of their pre-2020 levels and their rents need to be adjusted accordingly.
‘‘Both landlords and tenants have to understand that businesses that historically have paid high rents have had to have high turnovers — the high turnovers are no longer there.’’
He believes ‘‘variable rent programmes’’ need to be agreed between tenants and landlords — tenants, if necessary, might open their books on a monthly basis and declare their turnover for the month, which may need to be audited, and then pay a percentage based on what they would have paid pre-Covid.
Queenstown accountant Craig Benington, of Findex, says he doesn’t know of a single business that isn’t negotiating with its landlord for reduced rent, ‘‘or just not being able to pay their rent’’.
‘‘There’s certainly some places closing, or about to close.
‘‘It’s pretty grim.
‘‘They’re hanging on with the goodwill of their banks — but how long that goes on for is yet to be determined.’’
While Chisholm thinks Queenstown will rebound relatively quickly once the border with Australia opens, it will be survival of the strongest till then.
Benington says businesses in the Whakatipu are ‘‘just living on hope that the borders are going to open’’, and believes it would be helpful if the government indicated a ‘‘potential date’’ for that to happen, so they could plan.
‘‘But we can’t even get that commitment.’’