Trying to stop retail stores from leaving Boston High Street is currently “damage limitation”, said the town’s economy chief as more stores edge into the firing line.
However, Boston Borough Council’s economic development manager Clive Gibbon said there is a future based on “community experience”, addiong that the commercial future of the borough is positive.
Boston town centre has suffered some heavy losses in the past few months, with the shocking collapse of Fogarty, ongoing consultations with Marks and Spencer and HMV and confusion over the future of Clinton Cards to name a few.
“We’ve still got quite a good retail mix, but we will probably lose some more in this year and the following couple of years,” said Mr Gibbon.
“The high street is an interesting proposition really. It’s almost damage limitation.”
However, Mr Gibbon said the losses are all part of a high street transforming to deal with changing shopping habits and priorities – including the impact of online shopping and retailers changing their business models and wanting fewer but bigger premises.
“Primark is a prime example, their minimum space requirement is 45,000 square footage and with all the will in the world we haven’t got anything that big to entice them at the moment.
“That’s one of the problems, retailers are going bigger but with less of them.”
How are business handling Brexit?
The problem isn’t helped by the current Brexit debate with at least one unnamed commercial business known to be holding off from moving to the area from a nearby city until a final decision is made.
“When we talk to the business community around what they’re doing. They are looking at two different scenarios but until there’s any form of outcome we can’t really work with anything.
“We’re working within the business community the best we can but if they don’t know we can’t help,” he said.
The focus now however, is on creating a community experience.
“You can’t stop that change. It’s gaining traction and working fast, but we’re also working with retailers as well,” he said.
The move includes focusing on activities that bring people into town and interspersing that with the retail offering.
This includes more cafes, restaurants, barbers and hairdressers and even doctors, dentists and childcare.
More community events, such as this year’s successful Christmas Lights switch-on are being encouraged.
“There’s a lot of people that like drinking in cafes and socialising. Years ago we use to socialise and have meetings in pubs and pub lunches.
“Now we don’t and take it instead into cafe bars. It’s more acceptable now to do that.”
Mr Gibbon also says a move towards customers preferring Click and Collect over online/home delivery will also help.
The council is looking at how it can take advantage of Government grants such as the new Future High Streets Fund announced by the Government, particularly towards the infrastructure around town.
This includes future parking options, the relocation of spaces and redesigning the Market Square to make it more user friendly.
Other options include encouraging landlords to change empty spaces above shops into residential accommodation, the idea being that people living close to town would be more likely to use it.
Many have previously questioned the high rate of rents and business rates, but Mr Gibbon and the council are keen to point out these aren’t factors set by them. However, they add that they do try to speak to landlords and property investors.
Investment is being made
Away from the town centre Mr Gibbon is even more confident of the borough’s economic success. He points to more than £60 million being invested in the area by businesses creating more than 200 jobs in the last two years.
They include tropical fruit packers Ripe Now moving from their Kirton base to the former Morrisons factory on Marsh Lane, the Kirton and Sutterton Business Parks being almost filled, the expansion of Rolec, the plans for a potential new power station and the Port of Boston’s planned expansion.
– On February 12, the council, along with Lincolnshire Police, Boston Town Team and Heritage Lincolnshire will be inviting the town’s retailers to draw up ideas and initiatives to “support the town centre, increase the viability and its vitality” as well as help submit a funding bid to the Future High Street Fund. The event will take place at the White Hart Hotel and begin at 5.30pm.