What was once the Greek Mecca in Melbourne, Lonsdale Street has lost a lot of its defining character. Walking along the street, with the cultural centre covered up, QV closing in and the plethora of miscellaneous non-Greek small businesses, it’s easy to forget the street is still technically the Greek Precinct.

High rents and a lack of Greek foot traffic has pushed many businesses elsewhere and the precinct has suffered. Only seven Greek shops keep vigil on the strip.

The council has admitted in a recent review of the precincts program that the Greek Precinct has been an issue. Big disparities between the Greek precinct and the popularity of other precincts has forced the Council to review Lonsdale Street’s relevance and it wants to shift funding to “more deserving” precincts.

Currently, the council has given upwards of $650,000 to all precincts for the 2012-13 financial year, and has suggested precincts that have less that the minimum 25 members should be given a much smaller share of funding.

The Lonsdale Street Greek Precinct Association just meets the minimum numbers and has been given $23,000 of funding for the past two years by the council.

In the report, council management revealed “Greeks want big things, plaza, pillars etc. Council isn’t in a position to deliver those, so they have got a few things in the scale of Council’s possibilities”.

The council feels that throwing money at the failing precinct won’t solve any problems, and in fact admits there is a lack of transparency with where funding has gone.
“Money invested in a place that is disappearing (Greek Precinct); the money should come from the community.

“What have they done with the funding?”

Ignatios Karasavvidis, President of the Lonsdale Street Greek Precinct Association and owner of Medallion and Dion restaurants, told Neos Kosmos some money was spent on advertising in travel magazines, but declined to reveal where the remainder has gone.

Councillors also admitted they could remove “districts which are arbitrary” and are happy to see precincts fade away to make room for other precincts.

Already Melbourne has seen a resurgence of small Greek ‘precincts’ pop up in the suburbs. Away from the city, Oakleigh has become the biggest new Greek hub and has the foot traffic to support it. With new shops opening what seems like weekly, Oakleigh definitely has the new charm that Lonsdale Street lacks. But, its distance is a negative aspect. Lonsdale Street still has the tourist market that none of the suburban Greek hubs have been able to acquire.

President of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, Bill Papastergiadis thinks with the huge number of Greeks in Melbourne, there is more than enough room for multiple precincts and there isn’t an excuse for a lack business presence in Lonsdale Street.

“I think with 300,000 Greeks here, Melbourne can more than comfortably cater to two, three, four or five precincts,” he tells Neos Kosmos.

“At the end of the day, this is the CBD, it’s the centre of Melbourne. This is where the tourists are, this is where all the captains of industry are and it’s important that we have a presence here.”

What has been left out of the review completely is the impact the new 15-storey Greek Cultural Centre will have on the precinct. More than 15 businesses are tipped to call the centre home, and will bring new life to the strip.

“You’re going to see a massive acceleration and increase in the number of businesses of Hellenic background in the precinct within 12 months,’ Mr Papastergiadis believes.

Nicole Kostandakopoulos, manager of Stalactites Restaurant on Lonsdale Street, is happy to see the cultural centre contribute to the strip.

“What GOCMV is doing is really positive for the street and for Greek cultural identity,” she tells Neos Kosmos.

“It will definitely assist in bringing people back to the city.”

For the embattled precinct, the lone shop fronts have remained the same for almost 30 years. Stalactites has stood the test of time by not being afraid to keep up with trends and embrace new customers.

When Neos Kosmos put it to Mr Krassavvidis that the failure of Lonsdale Street has been the unwillingness for shops to keep up with change, he strongly denied it.

“It’s wrong for people to accuse the shop keepers on Lonsdale Street that it’s their fault,” he says.

“If there is no interest, one day we’re going to go – what’s going to happen there? Everyone will come back to us and say it’s our fault that Lonsdale Street is gone. No, it’s not our fault, it’s the community’s fault.”

Stalactites’ Nicole Kostandakopoulos doesn’t see the logic.

“Keep offering the same and your market will be the same,” she says.

“You always constantly need to refresh and renew and make sure your business is always modern and keeping up to date with what’s going on in the world, fashion and trends.”

Neos Kosmos understands that the Lonsdale Street Greek Precinct Association won’t be changing their strategy, but are willing to take suggestions.

“Everybody’s welcome to advise us if they have new ideas which we haven’t thought of, everybody is welcome. We’d love to hear from every Greek that’s here,” says Mr Krassavvidis.

Despite the lack of change by the association, GOCMV has been proactive in hearing from the public on the issue.

Mr Papastergiadis reveals the Community has set up a committee to work with the traders and the owners of the buildings on Lonsdale street to discuss re-energising the strip.

“We aim to have our first meeting within the next four weeks to form a unified voice to gain some traction within the general Greek population and start lobbying the council that they properly represent and reflect what is going on in the street,” he tells Neos Kosmos.

For all the heritage and history associated with the precinct, it desperately needs a lifeline.