Amid COVID-related tourism drop, Grafton motel owner Alan Peake worries what will happen without rent relief

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Alan Peake is “fresh out of tractors”.

He relied on selling heavy machinery to cover last month’s rent at his motel in a regional NSW town, which has been spared lockdown but has not escaped the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr Peake sold the tractor which was lying at the back of his friend’s shed for close to a decade.

He is now worried that without commercial rent relief he will be forced to close the doors of a business he’s had for 13 years.

A NSW Treasury spokesperson said under the new measures in states, landlords can’t evict, lock out or recover security bonds of eligible retail or commercial tenants without first attempting mediation.

“The government has also introduced land tax relief equal to the value of rent reductions provided by commercial and retail landlords to financially distressed tenants, up to 100 per cent of the 2021 land tax year liability,” the spokesperson said.

But Mr Peake said his landlord doesn’t qualify for the land tax relief in NSW which means next month’s rent of roughly $18,000 will need to be paid in full.

Grafton is located in the NSW local government area of Clarence Valley, which is more than 600km from Sydney.

The town has not recorded a single COVID-19 case in the latest outbreak in Sydney.

But Mr Peake wants people outside of regional NSW to understand that depending on what location you’re in the situation for businesses can be just as bad as those in Greater Sydney.

“I mean, we’re not in lockdown. But we might as well be in a lockdown. We’re in a form of lockdown because we have no clientele, because of the lockdowns and the border closures,” Mr Peake told ABC News Breakfast.

He’s grateful for the government assistance he’s received but believes it’s limited.

“I just need people to realise that the implications of city lockdown spreads to us as well.”

With the lockdown in Greater Sydney extended until August 28, Mr Peake believes that whether he can pay next month’s rent will be completely dependent on how much support he receives from the government.

“We’re not closed, but we just have nobody arriving, and for a business that we’ve been in for 13 years it now puts us in a position where it’s almost day by day as to whether we’re going to survive or not.”

Difference between last years’ national lockdown

Mr Peake’s Bent Street Motor Inn is looking down the barrel of losing the two remaining staff they have.

He’s applied for the COVID-19 business grant and received $10,500.

The business support payments come in three tiers.

  • Tier 1: $7,500 for businesses with a downturn of 30 per cent or more
  • Tier 2: $10,500 for businesses with losses of over 50 per cent or more
  • Tier 3: $15,000 for business with a decline of 70 per cent or more.

He missed out on the full grant by a wafer-thin margin.

“We turned out to be 69.43,” Mr Peake said.

He’s also applied for JobSaver, a program funded by both the NSW and federal governments to provide weekly payments to businesses struggling due to the lockdown in Greater Sydney.

But still hasn’t heard if he’ll receive the weekly $1,500 payment, which is what he’d be eligible for.

“But that won’t even pay the rent, let alone electricity, rates and gas and everything else that comes along with owning a business,” he said.

He describes the pandemic’s impact on his business like somebody turning off the tap, but this latest outbreak is hitting him even harder.

“The difference [last year] was, my landlord had some sort of package available, where commercial tenants got rent relief,” Mr Peake said.

“So during the worst part of the last year, I’ve had to only pay half rent, which is roughly 9000 a month. And my staff, and myself, could get JobKeeper. Which got us through it.”

90pc of bookings cancelled

Prior to Sydney’s recent outbreak, Mr Peake was starting to feel optimistic.

He said things were getting back to somewhere close to pre-pandemic levels for his regional motel.

“We had a girls’ hockey team carnival that was supposed to be on at the end of last month. [But] 90 per cent of those cancelled,” he said.

The cancellations happened because those who booked lived in Wollongong and suburbs in Sydney.

At present, the lockdown in Greater Sydney includes the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Wollongong and Shellharbour, while eight LGA’s in south-west Sydney and Western Sydney are subject to stricter restrictions.

The carnival did go ahead, but after booking 16 rooms only one booking remained.

“Then the following week was the July racing carnival here, which we had bookings from all over the place like Queensland, Armidale, Hunter Valley,” he said.

But just like the hockey carnival, he said, 90 per cent of those bookings were cancelled once again.

“All because of the shutdown in Sydney and border closures,” he said.

“It’s an ongoing thing when the border closes with Queensland for us. We get regular business clientele [from there]. And they can come here, but they can’t go home.”

Coralie Bell, the chair of Australian Regional Tourism said the funding by the NSW government was welcomed.

But she said it was still not enough to support the regional tourism industry through the remainder of this crisis.

“While many regional tourism businesses have experienced strong demand over recent months, many have not,” Ms Bell said.

“The increased demand that has been experienced to date is far from sufficient to make up for the now 18 months of devastating impacts felt from bushfires, floods, cyclones and domestic and international border closures.”

Struggling to stay afloat

Mr Peake doesn’t see how he can continue, he said, with only one room booked this week out of a total of 20.

He’s shut down 10 rooms to save on electricity, and it’s all feeling uncertain.

“I’ve got one room for a couple of days, then nothing after that,” he said.

Mr Peake said if he could speak to either state or federal leaders, he’d stress how important commercial tenant relief was for his small business.

“[It] got us through the last wave. We don’t have it this time around. That’s the message,” he said.

“It got us through the last thing by the skin of our teeth. But our teeth will be flayed this time around.”

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(Original ABC Article)