AFTER SITTING dormant for several years, the Wonga Park Shopping Centre is coming to life with a facility that project developer Mark Etherington hopes will re-energise the community.
“It was the talk of the community about what we needed to get back in here.
“Then the opportunity arose for me to pick it up via the receivers.
“While not the development my business would normally undertake, we had a vision for it to be returned to its former glory and to be the community hub it once was,” Mark said.
He said there was “a fair bit of consultation” with Manningham Council about the undertaking — “the development application, making sure there was buy-in early, making sure there was community consultation about what was needed, or the amenities that were missing”.
He said the “full sweep of offerings” was contemplated from the outset, which includes a café, postal facility, butchers, deli, medical centre, gym, Pilates studio, and a restaurant.
He said he has worked very hard to get services that would be a good fit for the community and a good spread of complementary business that serves the community’s needs.
It is a passion project for Mark — who runs an investment group, which normally deals in large scale property investment around the country.
Being a local, he saw an opportunity to give back to the community by creating something sorely needed since the original shopping centre closed down.
“There have been a number of hurdles along the way, but we’ve never lost the vision to make sure that we delivered the community hub, and that’s where we’ve just about got to now.
“We’ve got some really good, robust tenants that understand the sense of community and that we are going local.
“Most of the tenants are locals; they’ll employ locals and be supported locally.
“They will genuinely give this the opportunity that it deserves to be successful.
“I think a longer-term vision is they’re all long-term tenants, and they understand that they’ve got some exclusivity, which allows them to genuinely get a foothold in the community going forward,” he said.
He said that with the inclusion of My Local GP, the community would get general practice doctors, pathologists, and a dentist. Other tenants are the Little Lofty Café, named after local landmark Mount Lofty; Rump Butchers, which is relocating from Tunstall Square; the Post Office, which will be relocating to the centre; and there will be a grocer or providore.
Upstairs there will be Wonga Health and Fitness Studio, and an Italian restaurant.
“At the moment, we’ve got the restaurant still for lease because we are trying to make sure we get the right operator,” he said.
During the interview, several community members took the opportunity to speak to the developer while he was on site.
One immediate neighbour, who did not want to be named, said she had concerns about the lighting that would be emitted from the centre, as well as privacy concerns with the second-storey gymnasium overlooking her property.
However, Mark attempted to assure her that the planning permit did not allow for internally illuminated signage and offered to enhance screening between the centre and her property.
She later told the Bulletin that she generally was supportive of the project to get the shops back into the community, as she had been particularly concerned about the abandoned site attracting squatters.
“It will be lovely to get a coffee shop back in the neighbourhood, but there was no need to make it two storeys,” she said.
Other community members were effusive in their praise of the centre’s redevelopment.
“Thank you — it is extraordinary,” said one woman. Mark said 99 per cent of the people of Wonga Park and the immediate area are celebrating and happy about this development and community hub coming back to life.
“Unfortunately, I can’t keep everyone happy, but I’ll certainly go to whatever reasonable means I can to help them and address their concerns,” he said.
He said during the permit process, there had been a “fair bit of backwards and forwards” with Manningham Council, including the expectation on the developer to undertake the cost of the redevelopment of community facilities.
Along with the initial pricetag of purchasing the site, and the $2.75 million cost of the redevelopment, Mark said he also agreed with Council to improve the parking at the community hall across the road, as well as a pedestrian crossing between the hall and the centre, pay for the landscaping of Launders Reserve, and put in curb and channel drainage along Launders Road.
He said the Council was meant to go to tender about a year and a half ago for someone to do the construction work on the hall carpark, but hasn’t yet.
“There’s been a number of steps along the way; we have had to go back to get some modifications with Council to extend the trading hours of the gym by half an hour — which required the full town planning application again.
“That’s just been granted, which is great, so now it’s full steam ahead,” he said.
Despite the issues of construction during COVID, the subsequent building supply chain issues, and the “hoops” that Council has made the project jump through, Mark said he is passionate about delivering this community hub for Wonga Park.
“Despite all the hurdles, once we start something, we’re not giving up.”
Mark estimates the final fit-out will take another eight weeks, so look for a grand opening towards the end of October.