Organiser says 45 traders ready to join Newcastle light rail class action

Angela Vithoulkas, pictured outside her cafe in George Street, says she wants to help Newcastle traders fight for compensation. Picture: Jessica Hromas
Angela Vithoulkas, pictured outside her cafe in George Street, says she wants to help Newcastle traders fight for compensation. Picture: Jessica Hromas

The organiser of a class action on behalf of Newcastle traders affected by light rail works says 45 businesses are poised to join the lawsuit.

Sydney cafe owner and politician Angela Vithoulkas will bring a team from Mitry Lawyers to Customs House on Saturday to explain how the legal action against the state government will work and sign up business owners.

The owners of two Hunter Street businesses, Blue Door cafe and Frontline Hobbies, said on Thursday that they were committed to the lawsuit and expected many others to follow them.

Ms Vithoulkas, whose Vivo cafe in George Street is due to close on August 24 after almost three years of light rail disruption, said 45 Newcastle firms and an unspecified number of residents had registered their interest online.

“As of Saturday we are launching the class action for Newcastle. It’s the day I have organised the lawyers, the documents, the businesses,” she said.

“The point of this is to spread the word that people can sign up and be part of this class action any time. There is no risk or cost to them. I’m not going to make any money out of it. I just understand the pain of these people.”

Blue Door owner Peter James said he had formally joined the lawsuit.

He said turnover at his cafe, which is in Wheeler Place, had fallen about 40 per cent and forced him to take a 78 per cent pay cut in the past six to eight months to stay open.

“For me, it’s all about the next time the state government wants to do something like this there should be a consideration for small business owners,” he said. “It’s been one of the most difficult eight months so far that I’ve had to experience in the 14 years I’ve been in business.”

He said his turnover had not risen since Hunter Street reopened two weeks ago.

“They’ve done a good job, I must say, but as far as increased turnover, we’ve still got no parking there.”  

Frontline Hobbies’ Colin Scott said he had received emails from 37 traders who had expressed an interest in joining the legal action and believed 45 was not an unrealistic number.

Newy Burger Co owner Ben Neil, who was forced to open new premises in Honeysuckle while Hunter Street was closed, said he would wait to find out more information about the lawsuit before deciding whether to join.

Ms Vithoulkhas is a City of Sydney councillor who has formed the Small Business Party and will campaign for a seat in the Upper House in the March state election.

She is also running a class action for Sydney traders affected by light rail works.

The state government has set up a rent-relief scheme in Sydney but has repeatedly refused to compensate Newcastle business owners.    

The Newcastle Herald has reported on the financial woes of many Newcastle businesses who say their turnover has plummeted since light rail work began in Hunter and Scott streets in September.

“They don’t have the advantage of the 600,000-odd people coming in and out of the city like we do in Sydney,” Ms Vithoulkas said.

“For them, the disaster of the period of the light rail … even though the state government is insisting it’s not delayed, and that’s why they won’t give them financial assistance, those excuses do not help these businesses.

“Many of them have closed already. People have had to go and find jobs elsewhere to work outside the business just to keep the doors open.

“It’s been a long time since they’ve had anything like a profitable business. Their families are suffering, their relationships are suffering, and the saddest part is they may never recover, and we know this because of the Sydney experience.”

She said light rail construction had forced customers to change their habits, and they would not necessarily return when the project was finished.

“This is the danger zone. This is why compensation needs to be addressed at the beginning of a project. Every day we have down time is a loss.

“And state government refuses to acknowledge that we are suffering losses from day one. We cannot afford the losses that these infrastructure projects create, which is anything from 30 to 90 per cent.

“That was the data from the Gold Coast, from Sydney and Newcastle. We are all telling the same story and the government is not listening.”

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