Mary Portas-inspired team could save town centre

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Business leaders want to bring retail guru Mary Portas to Stamford to help them protect the future of the town centre.

In a week when thousands of jobs have been put at risk across the country following the collapse of major high street chains, Stamford Chamber of Trade and Commerce says it is more important than ever to act.

The chamber wants to join forces with Stamford Town Council to form a town team which could access cash from the Government’s Portas fund.

President Tim Lee is hoping Mary Portas will come to the town to talk to the team.

The team would be comprise members of the chamber and Stamford Town Council, along with other interested groups, and would work to improve footfall in the High Street.

Mr Lee said: “Things are at an early stage. We need to set up the town team. From then we identify likely priorities we could work on and how we could achieve that.

“We would identify things that would make the High Street more attractive. This might involve bringing in more businesses and more visitors. It might mean making it look more attractive. It is quite a wide brief.

“We are interested in seeing if we can find ways to repopulate the High Street. We think there are quite a lot of vacant spaces that could be put to use as flats. This would mean there are more people around and if there are people there then other things could appear, like a pub.”

Mr Lee said the town team would be led by the town council and would comprise other bodies with “applicable skills”.

Some of the areas the team could focus on include pressing the district council to give tax concessions to new local businesses and campaigning for more free parking.

The news comes after WM Morrison was granted planning permission to build a retail park next to its supermarket in Uffington Road, Stamford.

Mr Lee said: “This is long-term but if the national policy is to encourage out-of-town development like retail parks then the town centres will die.

“Perhaps we can try and find a way of promoting the High Street.”

A total of 17 shopfronts are currently empty in Stamford town centre.

The latest to close is clothes shop C3, in Irongmonger Street, and jewellery and accessory store Ruby Loves, in Stamford Walk, is also set to close.

And Blockbuster, which has a store in Irongmonger Street, has become the latest high street chain to enter administration, following HMV and Jessops. Staff at Burton and Dorothy Perkins, in High Street, have also been telling customers they are due to close on February 3.

Lee Manning from Deloitte, who has been appointed joint administrator to Blockbuster, said it faced increasing competition from internet rivals and the shift to online streaming of movies and games.

The firm will continue to trade as normal in both retail and rental whilst Deloitte seeks a buyer for all or parts of the business.

Mr Lee added: “It is looking a bit on the patchy side. There are more vacant spaces than usual. You often hear people say there are only coffee shops and charity shops. But there is nothing wrong with that. It still means there are people who want to visit.

“You can get anything online but there are certain goods for which people enjoy the shopping experience. Specialist shops such as those that repair things would also be appropriate.”

Town councillor Max Sawyer (Independent) heard the chamber’s presentation. He said: “We thought that it could well have some value to Stamford. We are going to investigate the process of starting up a town team and go from there. The town planner is going to send over an audit of unoccupied properties.

“The more occupancy there is the better for the town it is. We will do what we can to support the idea.”

The independent view

Liz Stevenson, who owns Ruby Loves, said she was closing her shop because the lease was coming to an end. But Mrs Stephenson, who also helps run You and You and Beyond in St Mary’s Street, said change was common for town centre businesses.

She added: “Trade is up in some shops and down in others.

“It is not great but it is not doom and gloom either. We have all had time to get used to it now.”

Mrs Stevenson acknowledged the threat from online retail but said there were things businesses could do to attract customers to the High Street.

She said: “It is about good customer service and keeping your shop fresh.

“You have got to know your customer and know your town. It goes a long way.

“We are lucky in Stamford because we are well placed as a destination.

“But you have go to know what it is you are presenting and you have got to know your business.

“It is hard work because you have to be a jack of all trades.”