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Advice for councils: keeping main streets vibrant

Three women shopping

The main street of a regional or rural town is the heart of the local community. Many across NSW have been hard hit by ongoing drought, changing customer behaviour and online shopping, which have contributed to store closures and extended retail vacancies.

We’ve put together this article to help give your council some practical and effective ideas on how to support small businesses and ensure your main streets remain vibrant and an attractive retail option for locals and visitors alike.

Types of main street activities


Populating empty shops can create a diverse, vibrant and interesting offering that attracts community and visitors. It encourages greater use of the main street and can boost small businesses located close to once-vacant stores.

The flow-on effect of activation includes:

  • Increased number of visitors and tourists to 'renewed' areas;
  • Generating start up opportunities for local businesses;
  • Reductions in vandalism, squatting and other illegal behaviours.

Activation ideas include:

  • Pop-up shops, arts and culture - utilising vacant stores or the footpath to provide opportunities for new start-ups, home-based businesses, online stores expanding into retail, creative businesses, art displays or craft and music lessons.
  • Co-working spaces - investing and partnering to provide co-working areas in the main street for the benefit of home-based businesses, professional services, new arrivals in town and agile work practices.
  • Dual businesses/multi-occupancy - includes shops like shared retail spaces or dual tenancy arrangements (two different businesses, for example running a cafe by day and a small bar by night).
  • Shop facade, front and wraps - dressing up vacant premises, shop front or facade improvements.
  • Night-time economy - extended trading hours and night events.


Educating the community on its role in boosting support for local businesses, economies and jobs while also improving the vibrancy and variety of main streets.

Education options include:

  • Supporting small businesses to upskill, assist and increase business resilience in areas like business planning, financial literacy, ecommerce, social media/marketing, visual merchandising and customer service.
  • Encouraging local community members to shop local using campaigns, promotions, and business profiling via social media.
  • Economic development profiles and promotion to business, tourism and work/life balance.


Vibrant events and offerings can become a key reason for locals and visitors to come together to celebrate businesses and the wider community.

Celebration ideas include:

  • Events – markets, festivals or pop-up events.
  • Streetscaping and beautification - improving the atmosphere eg. night lighting.
  • Kid friendly - face painting, scavenger hunt, activities or  petting zoo.


The role of Councils and business groups

Local Councils and business groups are best placed to support local business and the broader community in addressing the issue of vacancies on main streets. They provide services, education support and generate commercial and investment opportunities which can significantly boost the economic prosperity of a town. Councils have the unique benefit of being able to approve businesses, events and land use permissions within their places and spaces.

Councils and business groups can help activate and promote the use of empty spaces and places by:

  • Offering empty or underused government-owned venues for small business use;
  • Funding and resourcing local pop-up and renew initiatives;
  • Educating staff on activation strategies and initiatives as well as the related benefits to local businesses and the wider community.
  • Promoting and liaising with owners and developers as to the benefits of activating their empty spaces with small businesses, home-based businesses, local arts and community organisations who need space; and
  • Promoting the idea of short-term reuse of empty spaces for community renewal to retail and business sectors as well as their local community. 

Remember, when setting up any community activity securing the support of local businesses and business groups will significantly help your chosen initiatives become a reality. Consider what types of activities are best for your town and use collective interests and strengths to make a difference.

Case studies

Night markets - Nightquip, Gunnedah

Each year, more than 100,000 people attend the annual AgQuip primary industry field day near Gunnedah. In 2019, Gunnedah Council launched NightQuip to attract those visitors to markets and other attractions in the town’s main street as well as the local businesses which had extended their trading hours. The total direct economic impact of the event is estimated at $250,000. Due to the success of NightQuip. Council has voted to continue the event.

Read more about Nightquip.

Pop-up store - Liverpool City pop-up program

The Liverpool Pop-Up program offers six start-ups, social enterprises, community groups or artists the opportunity to trial concept and activation ideas in a cost friendly, low risk environment for up to six months in return for peppercorn rent. The program has proven to be successful in filling vacant stores, providing more opportunities to potential businesses and even leading to longer term tenancies.

Read more about the pop-up store.

Coworking space - 6 Degrees, Coffs Harbour

Coffs Harbour City Council run the 6 Degrees program providing start-up and home-based businesses with support to start, grow and expand by using coworking space, networking activities and organised learning programs. The program has been running for six years and has grown from a one a week meeting to two full time coworking spaces and an ongoing program of learning and enrichment.

Read more the 6 Degrees program.