In praise of… business owners

Street change projects often stand or fall on what “local businesses” are seen as thinking about the change. We always hear about them opposing change, but are they all really the same?


For many reasons (most of them bad), we always hear about business owners and operators opposing street change – especially if it involves the Street Car Park.

Articles and politicians’ rhetoric often follow a classic formula: framing businesses’ profitable operation as essentially a public good, and perpetuate the idea that the business is entitled to public street space to support their business. (Does “taking away our carparks” sound familiar?)

Spoiler: business owners aren’t all the same.

Frustratingly for those who like a nice clean easy “Opponents vs Supporters” story to tell (and are even willing to misrepresent business owners to get it), there’s inevitably a spectrum of support.

More frustratingly, even business owners with similar positions on a proposal may have different underlying reasons for being supportive or opposed. A retail business isn’t the same as a hospitality one, which isn’t the same as a business that’s resident but whose employees are the street users (a professional services business, for example).

And the world of small “walk in” business is really complex. Hundreds of variables affect “conversions” (a person coming in your door and buying something), and most of those are completely out of your control. Profit is often absent for much of the year, or perpetually thin.

Understandable, perhaps, that the really tangible space on the road right outside the shop feels very significant for your business –  (even if in reality it’s not that significant).

But media and politicians’ preferences for canonising and stereotyping the Beleaguered Business Owner does a real disservice to the diversity of thought and attitudes in this sector.

So to balance out the discourse, here’s a few nice examples on our radar of the diversity of business perspectives…

Dunedin – improving on the ODT’s determinedly negative coverage of retailers views of the Octagon and George Street proposals (down to having deceptive headlines), this thoughtful op-ed “Retailers need to do research, experiment, be willing to adapt

The calibre of debate around the future of Dunedin’s retail quarter, and particularly George St, is at a disappointing level. It appears to largely operate in slogans.

“Pedestrianisation jammed down people’s throats.”

“Ideologically driven war on cars.”

“Anti business agenda.”

And so on.

It’s disappointing really when what is needed is evidenced-based thinking, research of other cities’ experience, and an understanding of Dunedin’s unique circumstances.

Longtime Dunedin business owner Richard Thompson

Auckland – the inner city Business Improvement District (BID) called Heart of the City, doing sterling work since its inception. It’s shaping the City Centre Masterplan (*envious sigh, wish we had one), supporting good research (like pedestrian counts!), catalysing good investment to draw people to Auckland’s heart, and good change to the streets and buildings (and carparking) .

Our own Wellington – the hospitality business owners pushing for carfreeing Courtenay Place, saying, “It’s a space that was once the jewel in Wellington’s crown, but now it only caters to the late night revellers. We need to reclaim it for all citizens of the city.” (There’s a petition if you want to support)

What other examples have you seen of business owners being other than opposed to good change on their neighbouring streets?


Further reading:

Retail NZ on the viability of dairies [PDF] (incl. some surprising arguments about the “public good”)


Image credits: Rob Kitchin, Stuff

2 comments on “In praise of… business owners”

  • The TOD article mentions ‘mass transit’ without defining it. The conversation in Wellington is inadequate because of the term. ‘Mass transit’ didn’t used to be difficult because it meant a generality, any form of public multi-passenger transport (bus, train). Now the term also refers specifically to a multi-carriage bus oriented street system. But this tends to leave out the more proven form of mass transit, light rail. The bus oriented ‘mass transit’ is nowhere used in the world, by comparison. We won’t be getting anywhere if we give in to the current rejection of light rail because the rejection comes from opponents who see that light rail has long been promoted as the alternative of choice to the total dominance of the personal motor car. Don’t be fooled by a light rail rejection rationale which includes an admission that there are two many cars. Rejection of light rail comes mostly from a desperate ideological fear of the fundamental changes necessary to combat the worst of climate change, just the kind of thing expected in the Post Truth Era where denial has reached main stream.

    • Isabella Cawthorn says:

      Hi Richard, what TOD article? Not sure if you’ve commented on the right post (we do have others on TOD!) as this one is about business owners’ positions on street change

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