White elephants of Penang

Wisma Central is an eyesore with its peeling paint and tired look. Many of the lots in the building are vacant. — Pictures by K.E. Ooi
By Opalyn Mok, The Malaysian Insider
Smack in the middle of George Town stands a tired-looking squat commercial complex with peeling paint and vacant windows that has seen better days.

This is Wisma Central, a commercial building that used to be a hive of activities almost 20 years ago when it housed offices of airlines, travel agencies, hairdressers, tailors and also a college.

Now, the building looks derelict and abandoned, with only a few businesses still in operation within the building.

Midlands Park used to be a major shopping centre but is now a forlorn, almost forgotten complex with only a few retail shops still remaining while the rest have moved out.

If one looks at the location of the building, it is the perfect place for any office or business to set base in as it is just a stone’s throw away from Komtar and it is in Macalister Road, one of the busiest main roads in town.

Still, despite its choice location and with ample basement parking space too, businesses have either closed down or relocated over the years.

In Penang, huge commercial and retail complexes, especially decades-old ones, often have a very low occupancy rate of between 20 per cent and 70 per cent.

These are the very complexes that are becoming the white elephants of Penang, with barely struggling businesses occupying a few lots within the buildings while more spanking new complexes are being built elsewhere.

A few years ago, a CIMB research report stated that there is a commercial glut in Penang, with the state recording the lowest occupancy rate for office space in the country at 76 per cent and the second lowest for retail space at 70 per cent.

Now, the situation has worsened as the occupancy rate for commercial and office complexes in the state continues to dip and more buildings fall victim to neglect and poor management.

Some investors saw the potential in some of the complexes and decided to give these buildings a new breath of life and, hopefully, bring back the crowds and economic activities to these places.

One of these complexes, Island Plaza, was given a facelift in recent years. This was one of the first upscale malls on the island located in Tanjung Tokong.

The empty hallways of the mostly vacant Plazone in Pulau Tikus.

Though sporting a new look, the occupancy rate for the mall was never like its heydays when people would flock there on weekends.

Another one is Penang Plaza, also strategically located in Burmah Road.

An investor bought over the building and gave it a new look, far different from its former “old-fashioned” appearance.

Occupancy rate may have gone up compared to previous years but it is not attracting droves of shoppers either.

In Pulau Tikus, two main complexes that are left to die a slow death are Plazone and Midlands Park as businesses moved out and occupancy drops to an all-time low.

At Plazone, occupancy could be less than 20 per cent and its joint management body is at its wit’s end trying to figure out a way to bring life back to the ailing complex.

The eight-storey tall building now only has a small supermarket on the ground floor as the anchor tenant and a sporadic few businesses within it.

“We are now thinking of how we can spruce up this place and make it a choice location for offices and retail lots again,” said a management committee member.

They have an uphill journey ahead as just a few kilometres down the road the more well-known Midlands Park is also suffering a similar fate.

It is not only old commercial buildings that are suffering low occupancy rates and turning into white elephants but a few new ones are also going down the same path.

Even as older retail complexes are suffering from low occupancy rates, new ones are being built.

Penang Times Square in Jalan Dato Keramat, a stone’s throw away from Komtar, has been suffering very low occupancy rates from the very start.

Now, it is being promoted as a food mall with many food and beverage outlets opening there and yet, the occupancy rate is dismal compared to its nearest competitor, First Avenue.

These white elephants, however, do not compute to a poor economic situation in the state as investors are taking up pre-war houses within the heritage zone and opening up restaurants, cafés and boutique hotels.