“We never asked about rent increases and we understood,” he said. “[But] it’s pretty tough right now.”
Zahos acknowledged that the commission did not raise his rent during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 and that he expected an increase this year.
However, he said that after revenue losses due to the pandemic and cost increases due to inflation, the amount proposed was extraordinary. He also declined to disclose the amount.
Fresh food stalls remained open during the lockdowns, while other stalls were forced to close.
The other exhibitors who spoke with The Sunday Era did so on condition of anonymity, out of concern that it could affect negotiations.
A woman, whose rent could rise by about 30 percent, accused the committee of being harassers.
“They’re essentially going to put our companies out of business … during a recession, during a pandemic,” she said.
The woman said she felt pressured to provide her financial information.
“It is outrageous, disgusting behaviour. We are treated like children,” she said.
Another exhibitor, whose rent could rise by as much as 40 percent, called the move a ‘shake down’.
“They’re trying to get blood from a rock,” he said.
“Before you know it, the face of the market will forever be transformed into a glorified food court because takeaway or big chains are the only thing that can survive.”
A fourth stallholder said prices could soon be as high as the Stonnington Council-run Prahran Market, while another said the process had caused him extreme stress. “It’s been hell,” he said.
Port Phillip Council owns and operates the South Melbourne Market. The land it stands on was made available to a general market under a crown grant in 1867.
Mayor Marcus Pearl said the council has provided $1,193,725 in rent support to exhibitors affected by the COVID-19 lockdowns, and the rent increases were the first in three years.
“The reality is it’s expensive to run and maintain a market of this size and complexity,” he said. “This means we have to increase rents to meet our obligation to taxpayers to keep the market financially sustainable.”
Pearl said the council is aiming to keep rents as affordable as possible for merchants and most will see a 3.5 percent increase.
He said the commission has taken into account the public benefit of the market and financial data has been requested to ensure the stalls can remain viable.
The commission’s charter lists the market as one of the municipality’s “prime infrastructure assets” and notes that it plans to develop it as a “premiere retail destination”.
“The market is an integral part of [the] the long-term financial sustainability of the municipality and as such must continue to operate profitably and competitively,” it says.
On Saturdays, the market was bustling with people, some to do their weekly shopping, others to browse or meet friends.
Terry Lees, who has been shopping at the market for 30 years and now visits three times a week, said that if prices went up, he would shop more often at other markets, including the Queen Victoria Market.
“This one [market] would be less competitive with Vic Market,” said the South Melbourne local. “It will force some people to move out the door because they don’t want to raise prices and… [make the market] more expensive.”
Keren Amore said she did her main store at Preston Market, where prices were lower, and that she came to South Melbourne for a few select specialty goods. The local Northcote said she would still visit if prices increased.
Resident Linda Pankhurst, who lives on St Kilda Road, said she would still shop at the market but she was concerned about lower income earners and the stallholders.
“A lot of these guys have had a really hard time, especially the past few years,” she said.
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