Given that she runs her own business online, Jane Johnston may not the obvious choice to lead a high street revival.
However, as well as being something of an internet entrepreneur, in recent months Jane has also emerged as a flag bearer for Halifax and driving force behind Townstock, a two-day event designed to bring independent retailers together with big business in the hope they might just be able to come up with a plan to inject a new life into the town centre.
“I’m originally from Burnley, but spent much of my 20s living in London,” says Jane, who sells vintage compacts online. “I knew I didn’t want to raise my own family in London so started looking for somewhere similar to where I grew up. Halifax pretty much ticked every single box.”
Jane now lives a couple of miles away from the centre in an area which is still blessed with its own butcher, baker and greengrocer. It is, she says, thriving, but elsewhere she knows retail is struggling.
“When people are asked they say they often say they prefer independent shops to the usual high street names, but running your own business particularly in today’s climate is really hard,” says Jane. “I know I can’t rely on other people to support these places and people like me who can run their entire business from a laptop in my back bedroom are making it harder. We can throw money at town centre developments, at shiny arcades and fountain, but shops and markets are complex, fleeting things. They mushroom from people who want to create, who want to be active in their communities.”
Jane got the idea for what has now become Townstock after seeing the work of Totally Locally. The social enterprise was set up to raise the profile of independent shops and link individual businesses under one brand.
“When you are a one man band it can be very isolating,” says Jane. “People often have great ideas, but they don’t have a forum to share them or don’t know where to go to make them a reality. I thought if I could organise an event which brought everyone together than just simply being in the same room might generate
A few months on, Jane is putting the finishing touches to Townstock which next Monday and Tuesday will take over Dean Clough. The event will see representatives from big stores like Morrison’s meet with boutique retailers and community organisations. Crucially, it has also attracted Dan Thompson of the Empty Shops Network who has proved elsewhere that it is possible to breathe new life into redundant buildings.
The event comes at a time when Halifax and one of its landmark buildings is at a turning point. Piece Hall has secured funding for a major restoration project. The news was largely welcome, but there are fears that the plans, which include turning the courtyard of an 18th-century building into a entertainment space, may fail to attract visitors.
“The one great thing about these plans is that the building will ultimately be passed into the hands of trust,” says Pat Steer, who for the last 13 years has run the Collect a World shop from the hall. “But I do wonder whether an outdoor venue in an area which is so prone to rain is the right thing to do. Everyone here wants the Piece Hall and Halifax to do well, but sometimes it feels like its future is being decided by people who don’t understand its needs.”
For more details about Townstock go to www.townstock.co.uk