BY ALEX EUGENE
Small businesses suffering a downturn in revenue because of the bungled Sydney Light Rail construction could soon have a dedicated Member of Parliament defending their rights.
Independent City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas plans to enter state politics as leader of the ‘Small Business Matters Party.’
After fighting uphill battles in local government for the better part of a decade, she says she “hasn’t stopped getting angry” about the mistreatment of small business owners, and now believes representation for the neglected community must exist at both a state and federal level.
Also the owner of Cafe Vivo on George Street, the second-term councillor has watched her visitor numbers steadily decline in the three years since light rail construction began.
Constant drilling and bleeping, unsightly scaffolding, confusing pedestrian detours and erratic traffic changes have all turned the once thriving George Street into a dismally unappealing destination, causing customers to shun the route and take their money elsewhere.
After two years of advocacy, tirelessly imploring City of Sydney Council to address the dilemma, a small win has finally come through. Just two months ago, the state government announced rent relief would be offered to businesses negatively affected by the construction chaos.
But Cr Vithoulkas says it’s too little too late. Many businesses on the path have already closed down, and still more are endangered, missing out on rent relief because they don’t fit the stringent criteria.
“Hundreds of small business owners have been calling me every week, asking me what to do,” she told City Hub. “But it’s taken two years to get the government to acknowledge there was a problem. If it took me that long [as a councillor,] then what chance does anyone else have?”
Aaron Le Saux, owner of MV Bistro & Wine Bar in Surry Hills says that since the light rail construction began, his revenue has dropped as much as 50%.
To make matters worse, Mr Le Saux’s family home has been impacted by Westconnex construction so badly that he and his wife have put the house on the market.
“We are selling our house because in a few years it will be worth nothing. But now even our business can’t make ends meet,” he said.
Mr Le Saux joined the Small Business Matters Party after a number of other attempts to get help with the situation failed.
“We’ve gone to [Lord Mayor] Clover Moore, [Independent Member for Sydney] Alex Greenwich, even the Minister for Transport.. and we’ve had no help,” he told City Hub.
“The government doesn’t care. Angela has been trying to help, she’s given us a voice – and we need representation.”
Cr Vithoulkas pointed out that the Lord Mayor Clover Moore has readily committed millions toward contesting the Westconnex construction project, but has given “not one single dollar” to helping anyone negatively impacted along the light rail route.
“There are people in Surry Hills who have been putting up with construction through the night, right on their doorstep, and they complain about dust and noise. But they’re just told to keep their doors and windows shut,” she said.
The ongoing battle to prioritise the issues led Cr Vithoulkas to the conclusion that small businesses are never prioritised in planning of any sort – infrastructure, the economy, legislation – simply because they lack adequate representation.
Shockingly, Cr Vithoulkas revealed that 98% of all businesses in NSW are small businesses, and that of those, 50% are employers – meaning a hefty majority of voters directly rely on small businesses for their financial livelihood.
“We’re the ones with the majority of businesses in NSW. We employ a lot of people in NSW, so we’re the ones that keep the economy going. Yet we’re ignored completely.
“Why isn’t something done at the beginning [of project planning]? Before contracts are signed, before anything is a done deal, why isn’t someone watching, monitoring and asking how that’s going to affect small business? And what are we going to do to mitigate that?” she said.
“At election time, we get ten minutes, and then we’re ignored again,” she concluded.
Tony Eriksen, an election consultant who has worked with various political candidates around Sydney, said Cr Vithoulkas was a skillful contender for the cause because she had a wealth of first-hand experience.
“She owns a successful small business in the Sydney CBD, so she understands small business. They need a voice as an MLC at NSW Parliament on Macquarie Street,” he said.
Cr Vithoulkas is currently campaigning across Sydney to sign up as many members as possible for the new party. A minimum of 1,000 supporters are required in order to have the group officially registered and qualify for voting.
The deadline to join Small Business Matters is Friday 27 October, but the group already have more than half the members they need.
“We’re going hell for leather,” said Cr Vithoulkas, visibly spirited despite all adversity.
Membership to the Small Business Matter Party is free. To join, visit: angelavithoulkas.com.au/join-small-business-matters-today