Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Empty shop count

I did a rough count of empty shops for this survey in Queen Street in Burslem last night - I had to move along quickly because we'd just read about the new Naan Bakery in Waterloo Road and had to shoot down there to try them (mini-review: they were delicious).

Before that I had tried to count by the Google map and got depressed. I'd estimate that 15 market stalls have gone since this satellite view was taken - there are none left on Queens Street. 2, sometimes 3 stalls come to St Johns Square now selling fruit, vegetables and flowers. Please support them.

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In Queen Street there are 25 shop units and 27 buildings if you count the Wedgwood Institute (empty) and the School of Art (full). To get it to 20 I will take out the council-owned shopfronts around the market, all but one of which has been empty for a while and currently being refurbished. Their successful tenants have tended to be web or design companies, but the majority of them have struggled to be filled and have contributed to a perception that the council is not letting non-creative shops open. While this has proven to be negotiable, greater flexibility by the council to fill the shops up at a rent that reflects the risk shopkeepers are taking would be a positive thing for the town. Having said that, a fruit and vegetable shop in St Johns Square closed again fairly soon, showing that even when the one thing opens that everyone says we need, our shopping habits may not bring us back into Burslem often enough to keep it going.

That leaves us with 14 units that are occupied and six that are empty. At one end the empty ones are the old Woolworths and the Old Wives Tale building and at the other the large Cooperative department store, most recently a Mark One. The council-owned shop units mentioned above take up about a quarter of the street, as does the Wedgwood Institue which did house the library and, once, a full centre for arts and science. The library is now a much smaller service in the School of Art, with hardly any of the space that used to make it a welcoming place for people of all ages to go and spend time reading or using the internet. Inbetween these is the 1909 Central Hotel building which has been defaced by red shutters for several years. Any local ex-land surveyers that might be knocking about providing small business support could probably make a good guess at the actual amount of empty square footage in the street.

The occupied shops overlooking Swan Square (the opposite side of which is all closed) are an estate agent, the well established Kismet and the Queens Head. Then the live-work units house 5 shops (I think) and 10 more creative businesses above - all are full, giving the town arts and crafts shops, Beslem the internet cafe and Unity, which just won a national social enterprise award. The success of this development is the model for the plans for the Mark One store and hopefully with similar management it will work just as well.

Past the School of Art there is a hairdressers, an insurers and a butchers, all long-established, locally owned businesses. Then a card shop, a Wrights Pies and a pizza chain. A sixties block has a small Boots, Dave's fabulous electrical shop, an opticians and a travel agents. Opposite those there is a large sports equipment shop, recently expanded and a pharmacy. Just after the empty Woolworths the unit is occupied by the marketing suite for the new flats being completed on the corner of St Johns Square.

An overly long response, I know - and possibly innacurate as I'm not the best counter; all corrections welcome. It's left me with a real sense of the mixed picture in Burslem. Some things have worked and can be built on, but the overall emptiness of the street gives a sense of loneliness that has a psychological effect on most people who visit, particularly those who remember when thousands of people flocked in from the surrounding factories for lunch, which was only a few years ago. This leads to generalised statements that spreads widely that Burslem has nothing to visit. The line that you can't buy groceries in Burslem, while not completely accurate (the butcher and grocery shop on Swan Square both sell some), sticks even if someone tries to change it.

The divides between traditional trades and the arts are gradually breaking down, mainly where trade links are formed between the two and the increase of creative people living in the town will help bring back regular trade for the small shops. There are businesses for very different audiences operating successfully side-by-side. There is also a great deal to be admired in the tenacity of many of the business managers who have stayed in Burslem as much of its wealth left and retain good customer bases and provide niche services promoted through word of mouth.

I haven't counted Market Place, which is actually the main street in Burslem, but that would be the subject of a whole other epic post. In case you were thinking of visiting, it has several banks, pubs, takeaways and a post office. There are also plenty of nice takeaway choices in Waterloo Road, including a traditional oatcake shop and a range of Indian food.

There are very limited options to buy clothes anywhere in Burslem now and little evidence that the customers of the stores that used to be Kwik Saves, now B&M and Home Bargains, come into Burslem to shop. That might change if the road connections can be made more pedestrian-friendly. The other change the council could make is to allow short stay parking for free, as *everyone* has been asking for years. This would make it a lot easier for people to call into the town. Without wishing to make sweeping generalisations, there is a marked contrast between the success of Burslem-led initiatives and those led by national businesses or the Civic Centre. I'm not sure that much has really worked in Burslem's favour since Federation in 1910 and so conclude that the return to town centre management is the right thing to happen. As the new regeneration board establishes itself and helps broker relationships between the townspeople and the management staff, we are seeing better communications leading to good take-up of projects, perhaps most markedly the Townscape Heritage Initiative project which is returning many buildings to their original beauty.

As the Arts & Cratfs Festivals twice a year continue to show but as most of the population remembers, Queen Street thrives when it is full of people. It has all the basic businesses in place to become a lovely little shopping street again. It needs everyone's support to help it grow.

Summary: 20 shops counted, 6 empty, 15 missing market stalls.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Little Ducks appeal

Babies having basic supplies should be the least we'd expect in Britain.

Little Ducks are the kind of small, local charity run by volunteers that many people never hear about and they help parents and babies at a point of crisis. Now they are in urgent need of donations to see them through into, hopefully, a funded future.

Please think about whether you can help by donating money or equipment on the evening of August 3, or simply by spreading the word about their appeal.