Popular eatery Lantern Fish latest to shut its doors as ‘for lease’ signs dot iconic Manly Corso

One of Sydney’s iconic tourist destinations is in “vital need of rejuvenation” with locals claiming venues are closing down in a “revolving door” fashion as for lease signs and boarded-up stores dot the area.

Manly’s famous Corso, which attracts some eight million tourists a year to its more than 200 retailers and hospitality venues along the open-air shopping strip and side laneways, currently has around a dozen storefronts sitting conspicuously empty.

Lantern Fish, a popular Asian fusion restaurant on Darley Road, is the latest victim to pull the plug earlier this month after two-and-a-half years in operation.

“Sadly Lantern Fish has closed its doors after continuously slow trade forced its hand,” popular local news outlet Manly Observer wrote.

“It had beautiful decor, high-quality food and cocktails and even got a respectable 13.5/20 from the tough judges at Good Food last year.”

One local commented, “Manly is like a revolving door. I can only imagine the newbies don’t do their homework. The rents are so ludicrous and it is a tough market. Manly used to be so fabulous and exciting.”

Another said, “Manly needs to get rid of its parking fees in council parking at night if it want people to eat there. Not everyone lives close by and can walk.”

A third agreed, “Two hours and it jumps to $12. It’s ridiculously high. Free parking from 6pm-10pm might bring in customers and then overnight parking charges so people actually remove their cars.”

Lantern Fish’s owners did not respond to requests for comment.

Several local businesses were reluctant to be interviewed but all agreed conditions were tough.

The strip has struggled to recover after a “real kick in the butt” from two northern beaches lockdowns during Covid, according to James Griffin, the Liberal state MP for Manly – whose electorate office is next to a vacant storefront.

“It was a real kick on the butt for a lot of businesses, especially over summer,” he said.

“Typically a lot of food and beverage hospitality businesses and indeed the retail ones, particularly through the Corso, really depend on about a seven-week trading period over summer through to Australia Day. If they don’t do well through that it really hurts. There was the bushfires one summer then two Covid summers, really three compounding challenges.”

He added, “So your hunch is not wrong – there has been a vacancy rate that’s been stable over the last couple of years, we want get as many shops and retail spots opening [as possible] and a good mix.”

Mr Griffin set up the Manly Tourism and Economic Recovery task force towards the end of the pandemic to come up with solutions.

“We got together all of the local operators and worked backwards from what do we need to do to create a more sustainable visitor economy, not reliant on those seven weeks,” he said.

“Because Manly can say we get eight million tourists a year getting straight off the ferry, walking up the Corso and not turning left or right – that’s where we see a lot of the vacancies. On the side strips off the Corso and nearby there’s some great gems there.”

One big problem is that average tourist spend in Manly is about 15 per cent lower than other parts of Sydney.

“Which is also something we’re trying to turn around, get visitors to stay longer and spend more,” said Mr Griffin.

“We’re feeling it’s an education piece, it’s more than the Corso and more than Manly Beach. We’re trying to get them to do more than buy an ice cream at the beach – have a long lunch, stay at the Manly Pacific.”

Kyla Kelleher, owner of local commercial real estate agency Pine Property and vice president of the Manly Business Chamber, said “you’re always going to have vacancies wherever you go” and that there were “definitely not more” than usual.

“The Manly Business Chamber and council work together on a vacancy map monthly, nothing is different if I look from last year,” she said.

“Businesses close for certain reasons. Lantern Fish had great food and they did a good fit-out but there’s much more to it, especially in a place like Manly where there’s so much competition. There’s so many elements to running a great hospitality business. The market’s improving. We are on the other side of the hardest retailing trading period [Covid] we’ve ever seen.”

Cost of living and increases in interest rates “have not helped the wider economy however we have a fairly robust and affluent demographic with a healthy demand for food and beverage offerings”.

“This does come with expectations but there’s definitely a sufficient target market for hospitality operators in the area,” she said.

Ms Kelleher said a small group of “keyboard warriors” would always talk down the area when news of a business closing hit social media and that it was “not fair” to characterise it as a “revolving door”.

“There’s lots of businesses that have been around Manly pre-Covid still running and thriving,” she said.

“Again, hospitality’s competitive. Ones that do well have a really great offering and have thought about it, not just ‘I’m going to open a cafe’, because there’s a trillion cafes. It’s not a revolving door, it’s just about making sure you’ve got your model and concept right.”

Ms Kelleher added that “rents are not excessive”.

“From a historical standpoint rents have fluctuated over the last 10 to 15 years but by no means have they only ever been increasing,” she said.

“Rent is a major factor in all retail leases although it’s not the only determinant of a tenants success.”

In the Manly CBD, all property owners must also pay a controversial special levy to council for upkeep of the area, which adds to costs.

Mr Griffin agreed that “it’s not doom and gloom” for the Corso “but it’s kind of in a moment of transition”.

“A lot of people think of Manly and immediately think of the beach and that’s great, but what’s happening is pretty organic, some great restaurants and hospitality options are popping up,” he said. “The offering is there, it’s just Manly’s changed a lot from people’s perception of it 20 years ago.”

Northern Beaches Deputy Mayor Georgia Ryburn said it was “no secret Manly CBD is in vital need of rejuvenation”.

“More outdoor dining, vibrant events, and better meeting places on the Corso is a start,” she said.

“While our vacancy rates have improved since Covid, the community is often frustrated at range of retail choice on the Corso. They don’t want another tobacconist or chemist on the Corso.”

Mr Griffin also said he would like to see a better events calendar for the Corso outside of the warmer months, like the recent Night at the Barracks open-air concert at North Head.

“I think that’s something we can do really well and we can beat Bondi,” he said.

In November, Northern Beaches Council backflipped on a controversial decision to extend metered parking until 10pm and restrict it to two hours.

The move drew the ire of local businesses, prompting an apology from the council.

Cr Ryburn said the parking decision that was overturned last year “was made without appropriate consultation, so it was right to revert it”.

“Accountability is crucial,” she said.

“We need stronger processes and more transparency when it comes to traffic and parking related decisions. That’s why I passed a motion to review our decision-making processes, on the back of this parking change.”

Mr Griffin added, “The voice of the businesses is pretty loud and it’s good that council heard them. The issue of parking in a beachside suburb is always a hot topic. I think a couple of hours of free parking is OK but anything that can be done to improve visits I’d be open to.”

frank.chung@news.com.au

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