“A tale of two cities” is how the council’s hand-picked retail doctor has described Bendigo’s ailing central business district.

The City of Greater Bendigo brought Brian Walker to town on Thursday to gauge the state of business in Bendigo and while he lauded precincts like View Street for their “unique”, “chic” culture, he said there was room for improvement elsewhere.

Crime and anti-social behaviour in Mitchell Street and Hargreaves Mall drove customers away, he said.

“It damages retail business because customers feel less secure,” Mr Walker said.

He also argued empty shops and businesses closed on Sundays were detrimental to Bendigo’s reputation as a shopping destination.

“We have customers coming to Bendigo for its wonderful gallery, its wonderful cafes, but they’re walking past empty shops,” he said.

Traders needed to collaborate on a unified retail strategy for the city, one which included precincts organised by shop type, he said.

Using women’s fashion as an example, Mr Walker believed shoppers would rather drive to a Melbourne mall than visit several Bendigo locations looking for the one product.

“It’s all there in one wing, under cover,” he said.

We have customers coming to Bendigo for its wonderful gallery, its wonderful cafes, but they’re walking past empty shops. – Brian Walker, retail doctor

Bendigo Business Council chief executive officer Leah Sertori supported Mr Walker’s call for a precinct-led approach to retail, saying a request a for $100,000 yearly contribution to the Lyttle Square concept was before the state government.

The project would see more than 50 traders bounded by Queen, Myers, Mitchell and Williamson streets join marketing and professional development forces.

“What will determine success is a trader-led approach,” Ms Sertori said.

But many of the empty shop spaces in the CBD were vacated by big chains, decisions over which Bendigo had no say, mayor Margaret O’Rourke said today.

She also said Bendigo “[rode] the wave” of retail downturn better than other regional centres.

Bendigo’s proximity to other Victorian towns meant it could become a hub for shoppers, Cr O’Rourke said.

But there was no quick fix for re-vitalising the city, she added, citing the decade-long development of the city’s arts scene as evidence change would take time.

First published in Bendigo Advertiser, 2nd March 2017.