Over the past four years I have had the privilege of working with a forward thinking local authority, Ashford Borough Council and local businesses to create and grow momentum in a town that when at first glance was feeling unloved with a 19% vacancy rate. The prospect of transforming a town centre would to most people involve bold statements and top-down approaches only, and whilst this is needed, it is also equally important to involve people who use the town and listen to the businesses and what they need in terms of support.
The quality of town centres is largely defined by the people who use it and this is where I was able to liaise with businesses, the community and Ashford Borough Council to work together with the vision of creating a town centre that was not simply another clone town. Ashford now boasts a number of initiatives and legacy projects that have breathed new life in to the town centre, learning from the past increasing footfall, dwell time and increasing loyalty and sales to the businesses. These projects would not have been possible without the vision to identify the problems and deliver individual projects all joining up to shape a town and restore pride.
It is my view that many towns and cities face similar challenges and people may feel that short term interventions do not go far enough to restore confidence and bring the public on the journey. However, if you take Ashford as an example the challenges were real and being experienced on a daily basis and I had to understandably overcome resistance for the projects I was delivering in the early days.
One of these projects was PopUp Ashford which was designed to create a platform for newbies to the high street, giving them the chance to trade without the overheads of a physical store. One of the draw backs to this project was the resistance by businesses who had worked hard to open their stores and continued trading in a challenging environment. Winning these businesses over was a difficult task, however, as time passed they began to see the changes taking place and perception shifting; people who might not have visited the town previously were coming in to see the creative businesses in PopUp Ashford. This project ran for 18 months and assisted 25 creatives test the high street. The success of this project then opened up the opportunity to create a longer term legacy and made way for Made in Ashford a council run shop share in the heart of Ashford showcasing over 50 creative businesses.
If you take individual interventions, one step at a time bringing the community and businesses with you on the journey then place led change is possible despite current social and economic challenges being faced by many towns and cities across the country. I’m able to convey this with conviction as when I moved on from the projects in Ashford the vacancy rate was at 7.9% and the business community flourishing, feeling understood and supported.
In my next blog I will talk about what you need to consider before delivering place led regeneration projects, including empowering businesses and community engagement, generating interest and support from existing stakeholders and potential new ones along the way.