Shopfront vacancies in Crown Street continue to climb, despite efforts to make the mall more appealing.
Last year, the Mercury walked from one end of the "high street" to the other, and found one in five of the shopfronts now sits vacant.
Our count included business and service facades - like NSW Government offices, lawyers' premises, the Telstra building on west Crown Street and health premises - as well as retail space.
We took a count of the same section this year, from the Gladstone Avenue intersection to Harbour Street, and found the vacancy rate has jumped to one in four.
Cash Converters and similar businesses dominate the top end of Crown Street, with three counted in a 50-metre stretch.
A number of shops that were vacant a year ago remain untenanted, like the former Turkish Paradise premises. Others, like Cafe on Crown, have left and not been replaced.
"It's like a ghost town," passerby Loretta Cuda said.
Among the remaining owners there is a cautious optimism, however.
Wendy Elliott, of The Source Bulk Foods, said her business hadn't taken a real hit until the COVID-19 cases linked to the Swallowed Anchor were announced on New Years Eve.
"Foot traffic noticeably dropped after that," she said.
"I don't think the city has recovered. Our sales the past three months have dropped noticeably compared to this time last year. The city has so much going for it - hopefully things pick up."
Ms Elliott said her business did so well during the beginning of the pandemic that she did not need to access JobKeeper - but if things don't begin to pick up, she will need to consider new premises.
Executive director of Business Illawarra, Adam Zarth, said while JobKeeper was a lifeline for some businesses targeted support was needed.
"There has been a very positive rebound in business and consumer sentiment across the Illawarra," he said.
"With more people getting employment and job ads on the increase, Business Illawarra agrees that it is time to move from subsidising employment to encouraging spending and allowing the economy to stand on its own feet.
"However, there are businesses that will continue to struggle, particularly in the hospitality, arts and tourism sectors. Business Illawarra strongly supports initiatives that assist these sectors and encourages people to get out and support their local businesses."
The business owners the Mercury spoke to weren't looking for government help, however.
They were unanimous in agreement that the best support Crown Street businesses could get would be free parking.
Ayca Summersford bought Tally Ho! Cafe nine weeks ago.
"Parking is the biggest problem," she said.
"That's what keeps people away. How can you expect people to hang around when they're thinking about the parking meter?"
It's a fair question.
Management and Wollongong City Council have invested in initiatives to draw people in, like Showtime in the City, and features to encourage them to stay, including gardens and seating, business owners wonder if the money could be better spent removing the biggest barrier for customers - parking fees.
"At Christmas there was a push to provide two hours of free parking for two weeks," Ms Elliott said.
"Instead they put up a big plastic tree. Money could be spent better."
High rents, empty shopfronts and ongoing construction were among the elements business owners said must be addressed.
The old David Jones building remains empty, and years-old construction sites at the lower end of the mall seem no closer to completion.
Former Crown Street Mall business owner Peter Perusco said the ongoing construction was a battle for outlets at the lower end of the mall.
Not only is it dead space, but the sounds don't create an appealing environment for shoppers.
He believes more investment in the lower end of the mall could help relieve the pressure.
"The construction down this end killed us," he said.
"Council could extend the markets further down, or have entertainment at the fountain, but the lower end of the mall is being forgotten."
A Wollongong City Council spokesperson said the council was working with businesses to better support them, but changes to parking arrangements do not seem to be on the table.
"We're engaging with a range of business groups, property and business owners to seek their input and working with businesses and the NSW Government on ways to support and stimulate the local economy," the spokesperson said.
"We've engaged an independent operator to undertake a review of all market operations within the Mall. The review will consider industry-wide best practice and our local environment.
"There are a range of parking opportunities in the CBD, including council-managed car parks and on-street parking. On-street parking is free after 4.30pm weekdays, and on weekends. The council co-funds the free Gong Shuttle. Ongoing improvements to bike paths and cycleways are a focus.''
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