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Shopkeepers gatecrashed a press conference and heckled Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Transport Minister Andrew Constance over the lack of compensation for businesses affected by the George Street light rail project.
Mr Constance fired back when business owners interrupted to complain that the government's rental assistance scheme for city shops didn't make up for two years of George Street being a building site
"Our business dropped 90 per cent," said Mark Duff, who operates a jewellery shop in the Strand Arcade with his wife Jennifer.
"Well, guess what? Your business is about to pick up massively," Mr Constance said. "Guess what? Here come the people."
He said several small businesses had claimed rent relief, but that the government was "not in the business of compensating people" due to the "bigger endgame" of infrastructure benefits.
"If we compensated every business that was affected by the $73 billion program, we wouldn't be able to deliver a thing," Mr Constance said.
When asked if the government had done enough to help retailers, he said: "I'm not interested in this, I've made the point. If people want to come forward and get rental assistance, it's available."
Mr Duff told the Herald that the shortfall in revenue of his shop on the George Street side of the Strand Arcade was compensated for by the other businesses he operated, including another in the Strand Arcade on the Pitt Street side and one in Paddington, in Sydney's east.
Transport Minister Andrew Constance announces the opening of the first two sections of George Street to pedestrians. Photo: AAP"The two viable shops are supporting the unviable [sic] one," he said.
Mr Duff said retailers had to rebuild their customer base from scratch after "the government blows up your business and shuts you out for two years".
"I'm absolutely disgusted with the way they just took it upon themselves to shut the city down," Jennifer Duff said. "You're [business owners] just collateral damage. It's so convenient for politicians to say 'Yes, that's acceptable collateral damage'."
"But you know what? We're the voters, we put them in their job."
A section of light rail between King and Market streets has been completed on George Street and reopened to pedestrians. Photo: Nick MoirAs they operate two similar businesses in the Strand Arcade, the Duff family emphasised that the losses affecting their store that fronts George Street did not compare to the earnings of the Pitt Street store, which they believe directly correlates with the loss of foot traffic caused by construction work.
The couple said they had applied for compensation under the rental assistance scheme last week but had not heard back.
Ms Berejiklian said the government had tried as much as possible to support the businesses affected.
"We know that when you're building a major project, disturbance is always unfortunate," she said.
"Now as we've opened up this section, we're seeing businesses tell us they're getting more foot traffic than they did previously."
"I hope this gives people an early Christmas glimpse of what happens when you really put your mind to creating world class public transport infrastructure."
The opening of the first two sections of George Street, between Park Street and King Street, to pedestrians last week elicited largely positive responses from shoppers the Herald spoke to.
Trees have been planted and seats installed on either side of the thoroughfare.
However, business owners have complained of revenue falling due to noise and dust from construction deterring shoppers.
Mr and Ms Duff said regular customers, retained from years of marketing and goodwill, had been lost.
"If they're walking through drills blasting and jackhammering and concrete and dust, they don't want to be here," Ms Duff said.
Describing the strip as one of the world's hottest selfie spots, Mr Constance said: "This is what tomorrow's Sydney looks like today."
The Transport Minister also hailed the fact that a predicted "mass closure" of businesses had not occurred.
Patricia Forsythe, Executive Director of the Sydney Business Chamber, emphasised the benefits of the pedestrian boulevard to retailers and shoppers in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
"This opening and Christmas activation comes as a Christmas gift for businesses who have been impacted by the light rail construction work," she said.
"Sydney will soon have its version of prominent international shopping strips, like Bond Street in London or Ginza in Tokyo with the strong likelihood of new luxury brands seeking out the precinct."
Mr Duff said the Christmas decorations weren't enough to make up for the fact they had been left in "no-man's land" for the past two years of construction.
"I don't think they should get there and do a press conference and the facts aren't challenged.
"All they're doing is making glib statements about how we're building a greater Sydney," he said.
"That's very well, but how they're doing it is not. They've affected a lot of peoples' lives and they don't care."
The pair said there had been no respite after working six or seven days a week for the past two years to stay afloat.
"We'll survive because we do, we have to, we have leases, we just have to make it work."
They said Mr Constance's lack of empathy was poor and said the government wasn't interested in listening to their concerns.
While civil construction work has been completed along two sections of George Street, a significant portion of the CBD is still under construction.
Under the government's original timetable, track work along the 12-kilometre route from Circular Quay to Randwick and Kensington was due to be completed by April next year, with testing to start two months later.
Mr Constance said on Sunday that testing was "around the corner" but wouldn't offer a specific time frame.
"We're going to commence in the next period of time. I'm not going to give you the exact date in terms of the commissioning and testing of vehicles."
Under the original plans, 67-metre trams capable of carrying of up to 450 passengers were due to start operating on the route in 2019.
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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