In March, as Australia approached the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, doors to the highly anticipated new $50m market-style food precinct, The Marketplace, opened at Watergardens in Melbourne’s outer north-west.
Inspired by the famed produce markets of Melbourne and the rich cultural diversity of the local area, The Marketplace is a vibrant new indoor-outdoor space that introduces a range of new-to-market street-style dining and food retail offers alongside a new Aldi supermarket.
With the added achievement of opening the precinct fully leased and on time in the early days of the crisis, the project marks the initiation of a long-held plan for QIC. Set across more than 5000 square metres of transformed retail space, the redevelopment is part of a proposed multi-stage evolution of the centre into a culturally relevant microcity that is deeply rooted in the values of its community.
Situated in one of Australia’s strongest growth corridors, Watergardens in Taylors Lakes – approximately 25 kilometres from central Melbourne – is considered the beating heart of the region and is only set to expand further its role in the daily life of residents.
Daryl Stubbings, Director – Australian Investment Management at QIC, explains: “Covid-19 undoubtedly resulted in one of the most difficult operating environments we’ve ever faced. The fact that The Marketplace was able to open for the community on time, as promised, is testament to the remarkable collaborative efforts of our team on the ground and at head office in supporting retailers to open safely.”
“Our decision to open despite the challenges of the time was guided by the confidence that this development represents an essential and socially significant offer for the local population. This is a unique site which holds tremendous potential for future growth as a vital destination for residents of the western growth corridor. Our work in delivering The Marketplace as promised in early 2020 is step one of a long-term vision that we have for the asset as a next-generation town centre servicing the retail, lifestyle and social needs of the rapidly growing community.”
He continues: “We are committed to enriching everyday life for Watergardens customers, and one way that we’re doing this is by supporting innovative retail businesses to provide new and convenient experiences that resonate with the local community.”
Rapidly shifting business restrictions related to the coronavirus emergency meant that the public opening of The Marketplace required a substantial reassessment of typical marketing and operational processes. Guided by community-first thinking and an understanding of the importance of providing essential supplies and services at such a disordered time, the project and executive teams were confident in the decision to proceed with launching The Marketplace within the framework of stringent virus-prevention protocols.
Retailers – many of them new to the trade area – were naturally apprehensive about opening during a national shutdown of non-essential services, but extensive consultation with the tenancy delivery, OH&S and operations managers at Watergardens enabled almost all to open as originally slated.
Despite the restricted trading conditions, Centre Manager Joe Galea says QIC was committed to keeping its promise and getting the best possible outcomes for local residents and retailers, while ensuring the highest levels of safety and hygiene for all. “Had you asked me a few months ago if I would consider opening a new development in the eye of a global pandemic, I would have said ‘not a hope’,” he muses. “We fully understood the concerns of our retailers, many of whom are trialling new retail concepts for the first time, so we increased our day-to-day support to alleviate some of their trepidation.”
Galea continues: “The easy option would have been to postpone, but what really drove us was the understanding that by opening in March, as planned, we would be providing our community with an essential service at a time when it was greatly needed.”
Indeed, with supermarkets, fresh food providores and catering operators in such high demand as families adapted to more time spent within the confines of the home, The Marketplace – which also houses an expanded TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacy – was enthusiastically embraced, illustrating just how crucial a town centre such as Watergardens is to its community.
“One of the important elements that guided our decision to open The Marketplace on time was our commitment to providing convenient access to quality fresh food, as well as pharmacy expertise,” Galea explains. “I’m grateful this sentiment was echoed by many of our food operators and the precinct’s newly relocated chemist.”
With several of the precinct’s retailers being new to market, QIC provided a range of support including rent relief, assistance with transitioning to online delivery, round-the-clock advice, templated Covid-19 signage and an increased security presence for crowd control, which lessened the burden on in-store personnel. Galea says this support was particularly meaningful after having shared each step of the redevelopment journey with retailers, from the earliest stages of store design conceptualisation right through to launch.
Along with the new Aldi, the precinct incorporates a range of specialty providores including a butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, bakery and other produce-led retailers. “These retailers played a crucial role in our community during this time,” says Galea, “not only by supplying much-needed groceries and fresh food but as a vital employer and lifeblood of the local economy.”
Though the precinct’s highly anticipated dine-in streetfood offer was temporarily taken off the table, many of its retailers (along with existing Watergardens food retailers) have successfully transitioned to trading on takeaway and delivery platforms, in part facilitated by QIC’s negotiations with external delivery providers.
“Our food retailers have been nimble in ensuring continued trade despite government restrictions on dining,” Galea explains. “This is thanks to their enhanced offer of delivery and takeaway options, which we've supported through a robust digital marketing campaign. The uptake of these new offers has been exceedingly positive.”
Co-owner of 8bit, Alan Sam, launched a new kiosk-style grab-and-go version of his cult burger shop at The Marketplace. He explains that despite the obvious challenges and concerns that came with opening at the height of Victoria’s Covid-19 crisis, community support has been strong and sales positive. “This community needed The Marketplace to open,” he explains. “Opening also allowed us to redeploy staff laid off from our other [closed] stores. QIC has been very understanding of the challenges we’ve faced and made it clear they want us to succeed.”
Dario di Clerico of artisan cannoli business Cannoleria echoes this sentiment, stating that opening at The Marketplace when he did allowed him to keep staff from his other venues in work during a period of limited trade. He has also noted the positivity and enthusiasm of the community; “We see the difference in Watergardens being a local shopping centre where people come to do their weekly shopping. The people here have been so supportive of us and we’re already seeing regular customers who visit us every week, which is very humbling,” he explains.
Longtime retail partner Lucy Taseska of Lucia’s Euro Deli, who relocated and expanded her offering after four years at Watergardens, also cites support from centre management in enabling her to open safely and confidently at The Marketplace. “Everything I asked for, management helped me with,” she explains. “Aldi is bringing new people to the centre so The Marketplace has already brought a lot of new faces to my shop, over and above my regular customers.”
Joe Galea says that, like these retailers, he was impressed by how positively the community reacted to the restrictions implemented in response to the pandemic. He notes that a pervading spirit of cooperation and understanding meant opening week at The Marketplace proceeded even more smoothly than expected, buoyed by an already-strong community spirit and desire to shop local in support of new independent businesses. This has enabled new and repositioning retailers to build strong brand equity and rapidly induct themselves into the fabric of this tight-knit community.
To ensure the safety of Watergardens’ community and staff over the opening period, centre management staff worked with Victoria Police and specialist security consultants to implement a crowd control program. The centre also provided customers with hand sanitiser, facilitated responsible queuing with physical distancing, and ensured that people could exit and enter the space safely in line with government directives.
Commenting on the success of the project, Daryl Stubbings added: "In terms of delivery, The Marketplace was an exercise in executing with excellence – from conception to completion. The highly curated retail offer has clearly resonated with the Taylors Lakes community, while the adaptive reuse of existing floorspace aligns strongly with our focus on sustainable regeneration as a key component of our investor-endorsed ESG strategy.”
Stubbings also praised the efficiency of the collaborative approach: “To open on time under such extraordinary circumstances speaks volumes about the strength in our retail and development partnerships and of our commitment to deliver on the promise that we made to the Watergardens community. They were waiting for this, and, given the circumstances, we could not have opened at a more critical time.”