Kings Cross still cross after lockout laws repealed

Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross. Photo: Sardaka/Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/legalcode).

While a welcome development, the repeal of the draconian lockout laws has received a muted response in Kings Cross, where the double whammy of lockout laws and Covid has decimated local businesses. John Moyle reports.

After seven years of punishing and draconian ‘lockout’ laws that saw the area’s once vibrant daytime and nighttime economy devastated, Kings Cross finally got some good news this week.

From 8 March, 2021, no longer will 1.30am lockout laws apply to licensed premises in the Kings Cross/Potts Point area and patrons will be free to enter clubs, bars and pubs until last drinks. While the last drinks rule will remain, it will be extended by half an hour to 3.30am.

Patrons will also be allowed to drink shots and cocktails from glasses after midnight, just like in the rest of the country, and Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) marshals will no longer be required.

“What it means is that Kings Cross is now aligned with the conditions of the CBD so that it is a level playing field,” Doug Grand, Chief Executive Officer, Kings Cross Licensing Accord Association, said.

The lockout laws came into effect in February 2014 under then NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell as a response to the killing of two young men, from out of the area, by two lowlife thugs, also from out of the area.

The laws mandated that the city be divided into five areas whereby patrons were locked out of venues at 1.30am, and last drinks called at 3am.

These changes were followed by the introduction of ID scanners from early evening and the roll-out of licensed scanner operators and RSA marshals, all putting an impost on the venue operators for the extra costs which coincided with a decrease in patrons, who were put off by the new conditions.

The New Hampton Hotel’s Kieran Coleman had just finished a major refit when the laws were introduced.

“We used to get a lot of push back from people coming from outside the area where they didn’t use scanners,” said Coleman, who is co-owner of the hotel.

“And the RSA marshals meant that we had to have two staff members walking around at one-thirty in the morning when we might only have 15 people in the place.”

Revellers in pre-Covid times at the New Hampton Hotel. Photo: supplied.

Under any circumstances envisaged 12 months ago, the repeal of the laws would have been greeted with an outpouring of celebration – but instead the announcement’s reception has been lukewarm.

“Having the restrictions lifted is one thing, but as far as business recovery, none of us know how long Covid is going to be here,” Doug Grand said.

Even with the lowering of the social distancing laws from one person per four square metres to one person per two square metres, Covid means that there are still restrictions on dancing and singing, which affects all nightclubs and many venues that feature live music.

This has, in part, been mitigated with the City of Sydney Council injecting $1.4 million into nighttime diversification, and live music and performance grants, but there is much more to do to bring back confidence to venues, performers and patrons.

Another problem facing the Cross is the fact that the area has been gutted of entertainment venues and the flow-on trade to food and other service outlets that relied on late night trade.

Data supplied by the Kings Cross Licensing Accord shows that in 2012 there were over 40 licensed clubs, strip clubs, bars and music venues in the Kings Cross/Potts Point area.

Today it is a mere handful, and all are struggling as they keep readapting to changing conditions and regulations.

Most of the late night food and convenience outlets long ago pulled up stumps and headed west.

“You found venues and businesses that didn’t open past midnight go out of business as people stopped coming here,” Hamilton Kings, Chairman, Potts Point Partnership, said.

In early 2019, Yahoo Finance quoted Deloitte Access Economics as saying that the lockout laws had cost Sydney’s nighttime economy $16.1 billion.

Aden Levin is one of the few venue operators who has opened in the area since the introduction of the restrictions.

In July of last year, Levin took over the old World Bar premises in Bayswater Road, reimagining it as Wonderland, an immersive theatrical experience that has proved wildly successful in trying times.

The premises has three floors across two terraces that used to heave until five in the morning, but now lie under utilised.

“With us the lockout laws didn’t really change very much but now there is a potential for us to utilise the space that we couldn’t before,” Levin said.

Because of the lack of demand for late night activity in the Cross, Wonderland will still close around 1.30am even though it has a license to 7am.

The Wonderland Bar in Kings Cross. Photo: Wonderland Bar/Facebook.

In the past, the area has suffered from a lack of direction going forward, brought about by not knowing what conditions lay ahead, disinterest, and legislators who, on one hand, were talking up vibrant late night economies while at the same time putting Kings Cross under the boot of regulations that applied nowhere else in NSW.

With the announcement this week that Michael Rodrigues has been appointed as Sydney’s 24 Hour Economy Commissioner, we may finally see some unity in thinking and policy for the Cross to go forward post lockouts and Covid.

Rodrigues will be responsible for delivering the NSW Government’s strategy on the night time economy and to look at Sydney’s post Covid recovery.

Also, in around two months time the Commission for Sydney report on Kings Cross is due to be tabled.

“We’re supporting the Committee for Sydney as they talk to everyone with a stake in the Cross, particularly local business and residents, and make recommendations on how to jump-start the night-time economy and bring domestic an International visitors back to the area,” Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said.

One way of doing that is to reactivate the central icon of the area, the Metro/Minerva Theatre in Orwell Street.

“I also see this is perhaps a sign that Gladys, Stuart Ayres and Dominic Perrottet are ready to look at projects like the Metro/Minerva Theatre as a way to shift towards a more artistic neighbourhood if they are worried about a transition back to the ‘dark days’,” Brandon Martignago, owner, Dulcie’s small bar, said.

Brandon Martignago pictured outside Dulcie’s. Photo: supplied.

These state and local government measures, such as improvement of late-night transport, patrolling and liquor licensing reform – along with the input of local businesses and residents – should ensure that the Cross will have turned a corner for the better.