Steve Bentley, President, Mainstreet Australia


How would you define a main street?

It has a geographic commonality, it would have a boundary, a start, and a finish, and it has a sense of place. People would be able to define it.

How do you approach a main street?

We encourage a collaborative approach. At the end of the day why should a customer go to that street, go to that place or shop there? There’s got to be an offer and quite often that’s the story, it’s the brand and the experience of going there. Generally, places where the various stakeholders have worked together in developing a united offer are more likely to be successful. We would advocate that this comes down to the strength of associations working collaboratively.

Is main street not just a physical boundary, but an emotional boundary as well?

Main Street is typically a place of retail and trade…a business exchange, but we’re now seeing more and more civic activity…it’s almost as thought everything old is new again because that’s what main streets and town centres used to be. Everything happened there. The library was there, the banks were there, the park was there, the events and activities, but over the last few decades those uses got dispersed. The future success of main streets is in the fact that that they need to be more than just retailing. There are also events and activities which give people experiences and memories. We are starting to see the return of non-retailing type events and activities so that it really is that meeting and gathering place which has an emotional connection. I think a well-functioning main street is a place where people choose to go even when they don’t have to, and that’s the difference.

What main street examples do you think reflect the experience economy?

Successful main streets are the ones that actually have an identity and a brand, it reflects the values and the story and the identity of the community that surrounds it. One that comes to mind is Acland Street. It’s a look and a feel of the people who live there and therefore it becomes a destination that people travel to go there.

Beechworth is another place that reflects the surrounding area; the historic buildings, their stories and the products that they sell. You walk through the town and it reflects the story and the history of Beechworth.

Are there key partnerships in successful main streets?

I really believe in a collaborative approach. Similar to Westfield or Highpoint, those models work because they share stuff and they do stuff together, if you set up a small independent business, the chances of you being viable in five years’ time is about 20%…that means there’s an 80% chance you’ll go broke. If you buy a franchise in five years’ time there’s a 95% chance you’ll still be in business and a 5% chance you’ll go broke. In a franchise model you’re buying a proven method, you’re buying the joint purchase of stock, advertising, training, everything. That’s the mindset that we’re saying needs to be applied with a collective approach to the businesses in a main street. Westfield has got waiting lists yet main streets might have 10 to 15% vacancy rates.

It’s actually saying this collaborative approach is the best model. It’s not saying that someone in small business has to do everything in conjunction with their neighbour, but there are certain things that you can do to actually create a competitive, sustainable product.

Do you think a main street can survive without an anchor tenant?

Yes, but you need to consider ‘what if the anchor tenant was the combined offer of a group of smaller tenancies with a common theme or offer’. If they had a combined offer of diverse food, or focus on unique women’s fashion it can become and attractor. A large anchor tenant can be good, but it can also lead to a bad outcome for the main street as well. Generally, those big supermarkets don’t want to talk to a main street and would prefer to have their back to the main street.


How can we nurture strong main street foundations in growth areas?

Either the developer or council needs to be heavily involved in greenfield main streets, businesses will need support to meet the communities needs early on. They have a role in whatever they can do to try and help businesses stay viable until you reach a viable economy of scale. You do this by engaging people, helping them create memories, experiences and a connection with the place so that people feel known…so it becomes their local town with good memories. Once they feel connected they’ll feel an obligation to support their local businesses.


Is the success of a main street linked to the quality of its design?

I think well designed places consider activities and activations which allow people to gather and events to happen. You need spaces for markets, art and music and then other places where you can just sit and watch people. The design of a main street needs to actually encourage people to linger.

You’ll struggle to get people to love a place and want to linger in a place if it’s not green; you’ve got to have trees and shade. Once you’ve got that you need a management model and a commitment to activation. In all of that you must try and inspire, motivate and engage the community to participate, but you need a level of leadership and initiative to make that happen.

I’m actually a big fan of places that are less than perfect, believing they can still be wonderful places that people love because of what happens there, the customer service and the mix of businesses and activities.

I think well designed places think about activities and activation and allow people to gather and events to happen. You have spaces that have markets and art and music and places where people can just sit and watch people. Because you could just build a place that’s just truly functional, which is like supermarkets, isn’t it? With that model where they have the car park in the front, a two-hour parking limit, shops, the supermarket is your anchor, it’s a centre. They don’t expect you to hang around because you’re not spending money when you’re talking to someone. So it’s pretty much drive in, park your car

Do cars have a role to play in main streets?

We use the word ‘street’ because we need to remember these are streets not roads. Unfortunately, businesses think that cars mean customers, but this is unproven. Even if you have great parking and great cars you must question whether this makes it an attractive place for people? Personally I don’t think so.

If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?

I think we need to hold developers accountable to the dream they sell families. They put families in growth areas without really investing in community. People must have a chance to tell their stories, meet their neighbours, walk more and feel safe doing so. Community can be started with a strong main street offer through that sense of connection, place and identity which creates strong communities.


Hard Elements

Buy the book Tribus Tools Join the community