Central Pier staff sacked before Christmas as uncertainty clouds Docklands precinct’s future

More than 100 people who work at Central Pier in Melbourne’s Docklands have lost their jobs on the eve of Christmas, as businesses grapple with an uncertain future.

The century-old pier was abruptly shut down 15 weeks ago by the State Government, after it was deemed structurally unsound by Development Victoria.

Business owners said they had been left in the dark and had been forced to lay off hundreds of staff, at what is normally the busiest time of the year.

Before it was closed in August, 1,300 people worked at the pier.

Since then the workforce has been halved, with many of the laid-off workers being casual staff.

Atlantic Group chief executive Hatem Saleh made the tough decision to let 22 full-time staff go last week.

“It’s heartbreaking. Some of these people are family and some have relied on this business for over a decade,” he said.

“To be put in the position where we’ve had to let these people go just before Christmas, with no assistance or understanding as to why, has been frustrating.”

On a warm December day the pier would usually host around 3,000 people, at back-to-back events, with businesses throwing parties to mark the end of another year.

But on Tuesday no-one was there.

Development Victoria warned the site would remain closed until at least January 6, when it would make a decision about the pier’s future, leaving businesses in financial uncertainty.

Restaurants and bars were abruptly evacuated four months ago after the base of the pier was found to be deteriorating rapidly.

The Atlantic Group alone had to cancel or relocate more than 700 events.

Businesses ‘none the wiser’ about what happened

Eight business owners on the pier are suing Development Victoria for $100 million, over claims it breached its responsibility to maintain the safety of the pier.

So far, it has taken Development Victoria four months to assess the damage — and it is yet to begin repairs.

That is despite more than $5 million being spent to make the pier stable before it closed.

Mr Saleh said the losses to businesses had now exceed $15 million and he was waiting with “bated breath” for January 6.

“We’re none the wiser as to how and why this happened,” he said.

“Every business was blindsided by what took place and we’ve sat patiently waiting for some support.”

Mr Saleh said he had put in several formal requests for support to Development Victoria.

Jeff Gordon owns and operates the Lady Cutler showboat cruise out of Central Pier.

He said he was worried he might have to shut up shop for good and was worried about “a quiet death” for the Docklands precinct.

“I’ve been here for 14 years and the future is pretty bleak at the moment,” he said.

“I’m seriously considering it [closing] … January, February and March aren’t looking good.”

Pressure mounts on State Government to find solution

Reason Party MP Fiona Patten said the issue had been poorly managed by Development Victoria.

“Hundreds of people are out of work just before Christmas and there appears to be a complete lack of empathy by the government landlord,” she said.

“You have to think if this was someone like Westfield and their buildings were closed for safety reasons before Christmas, their tenants would be looked after so that their businesses survived and staff remain employed.”

Ms Patten said even if the pier was to open next year it was questionable as to whether businesses would be able to “build back up again”.

The Andrews Government referred questions about Central Pier to Development Victoria.

Development Victoria’s Geoff Ward said the decision to close the pier had been made “on the basis of specialist advice that the structure was unsafe and a danger to workers and patrons”.

“Preserving public safety remains the prime consideration in the review process that has included a comprehensive investigation carried out by our engineering consultant,” Mr Ward said in a statement.

Shadow Minister for Priority Precincts David Davis accused Development Victoria of being secretive by refusing to release an engineer’s report which was completed months ago.

“The Andrews Government is covering up their incompetence, refusing to release the secret KBR engineer’s report and blocking the release of potentially damaging board minutes of their failed agency,” he said.

“These jobs are going because of their incompetence and small businesses are on their knees through no fault of their own.”

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