Warrnambool's retail occupancy and investor inquiry is at record-high levels as major national retailers line up to find suitable locations to open in the city.
Council's city growth director Andrew Paton said Warrnambool was on the radar of an increased number of retailers with many just waiting for the right site to establish their stores.
"I'm receiving the most level of investment inquiry that I've ever had and that's a really positive thing," Mr Paton said.
"Five years ago we didn't have the critical mass or the growth to satisfy the investment criteria to satisfy some of these larger retailers, but now we're seeing that line of inquiry and we need to reflect that in our land use."
He said the challenge was making sure it could be delivered and facilitated sustainably in a way that would improve and add value.
The high interest level comes as many of the city's shopping and bulk good precincts are at 100 per cent occupancy, making it a challenge for large format retailers to secure a suitable site.
It's the first time the Homemaker Centre, Harvey Norman and Northpoint Shopping Centre have reached full occupancy in more than a decade.
It's a first for the Homemaker Centre since it opened in 2005, with Choices Flooring Warrnambool to soon relocate from Timor Street.
Asset manager David Turner said four well-known large format retailers were on a waiting list for a site at the centre, but there were no vacancies at his or other nearby centres.
When Norwey, a group of private investors with links to the south-west, bought the centre in 2008 Mr Turner said Warrnambool had a "huge problem with escape expenditure" with about $70 million in retail spending leaving the city.
He said while the bulky good precinct was "quite young and new" it had helped to reduce it. "What I'm pleased about is the combined retail offer of Warrnambool. Whereas in the past I would argue it was a weak offer, as evidenced by high levels of escape expenditure," Mr Turner said.
He said its combined retail offer had been strengthened and there was a synergy between the various centres in the city's east.
"People now understand we're a sum of all parts and we're stronger for that reason," he said. "If I have a little business in Warrnambool, do I want people driving down the road to Geelong or Ballarat or do I want the Good Guys holding those customers and they don't leave Warrnambool?
"The thing about COVID is it's forced us to stay in our own 'hood and we've had to rely on the local traders."
He said while it would appear the centre was full of national retailers, most of the business or franchises were locally owned.
He said some had begun trading in the CBD and had "incubated and been able to go to the next level" expanding into premises five times their original store size.
The opening of the new House store in Liebig Street in early November and a number of other new retailers has seen the main street at its highest occupancy rate in more than five years.
Mr Paton said Warrnambool's retail footprint continued to grow and council actively monitored supply of land and development activity across the city.
"When you consolidate not only the city centre but the Eastern Activity Precinct, Northpoint Shopping Centre and even at Dennington, it's quite a significant increase in our retail floor space over the last five years."
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Mr Paton said one of the challenges in meeting investors' future needs was land availability, that had been earmarked for development, but relied on landholders willingness to sell.
"A number of large parcels within the Eastern Activity Structure plan, are under private ownership and ultimately for that area to be developed it needs to meet the aspirations of the land owner and the proponents so those aspirations are realised."
He said council would develop a new retail strategy, subject to funding in its 2022/23 budget bids, to ensure the city could meet future needs.
"That can explore office space, retail footprints, what is it that needs to be made available to meet the needs of investors, but also meet the need of consumers," Mr Paton said. Ultimately we want businesses to develop businesses and services that people want and that's the challenge."
A 20,000-metres-square parcel of land on Raglan Parade, near Bunnings, was purchased in April by local business people with plans to develop it in the future.
Mr Paton attributed some of the increased investor interest to the pandemic.
"There's no doubt that the global pandemic has probably done more in promoting regional living than any government public policy in the last 20 years," Mr Paton said.
"I genuinely do think that. It was always a challenge to say 'come to the regions, you can still have a great lifestyle, you can get the job you want, there are services here'.
"I think with Warrnambool growing and its significance as a regional services centre delivering great health services, great education opportunity's but also a wider range of employment and career pathways, the future of Warrnambool looks rosy," Mr Paton said.
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