Town centre closures - businesses speak out

Sadly, whispers that another major name on Harrogate's food and drinks scene is about to bite the dust have become almost as frequent as tweets on Twitter these days.

Helen Sutcliffe of Sutcliffe Galleries, a member of Montpellier Quarters Retailers Group in Harrogate.
Helen Sutcliffe of Sutcliffe Galleries, a member of Montpellier Quarters Retailers Group in Harrogate.

Occasionally, they’re not accurate, of course, although in the case of the town's award-winning Norse they did prove true.Restaurants come and go at the best of time but these are not the best of times.

For the current wave of restaurant and shop closures is taking place amid the problem of growing empty spaces on the high street.

It’s a problem which is deepening nationwide, as plans announced earlier this week by Marks and Spencer to close 100 stores shows.

Ruth Hampson and Hayden Howells.of Harrogate's Bean & Bud cafe.

The tough environment has also been felt in Harrogate, increasingly so over the past 12 months.

One example is well-known Harrogate restaurant Bodega which, happily, is about to reopen this Saturday after months of closure.

At this point last year, it was located in the heartland of Harrogate’s estate agents on Princes Square.

Before its rebirth in a new location at Cheltenham Parade, its owners spoke out about time how tough things were becoming in the town centre.

“Being an independent restaurant has been very tough with the huge influx of chained restaurants hitting Harrogate.

“No longer can we subsidise the huge rent and rates that our current location commands, so we have made a decision to move the Bodega Restaurant to another part of the town centre.”

Possible reasons for the current worrying times are legion.

Parking changes? The high price of rents? The level of business rates?

The effect of the internet? The effect on consumer behaviour of changing patterns in our daily lives?

Competition from Trinity shopping centre in Leeds?

Many in the know now believe the retail sector needs to think more creatively about how to make shopping an entertaining experience.

But, rather than speculating on possible ideas and solutions, we decided to talk to local businesses in Harrogate.

And they told us what they would like to see happening to create a positive future for Harrogate town centre.

Empty Harrogate shop units - what businesses say

Sutcliffe Galleries, 5 Royal Parade, Harrogate

Helen Sutcliffe of Sutcliffe Galleries, a member of Montpellier Quarters Retailers Group, said: "The main problem in Harrogate and other town centres is pay parking.

"Town centres’ two biggest competitors are the out of town shopping centres and the internet.

"The disc parking system worked well in Harrogate in the past, freeing up spaces, now not only is parking expensive, but you have to guess how long you need - often we lose a potential sale as a client has to rush off to move his car.

"As the revenue from parking in Harrogate is huge, it is unlikely that the North Yorkshire County Council will do a U-turn after so long! Perhaps intruducing a Park & Ride could work?

"The UK usually follows America’s lead and there the town centres or ‘down town’ are ghost towns and shopping is all done at the Malls.

"Harrogate Council needs to look after the independents, as they are one of the biggest draws for visitors and help to make Harrogate unique, along with our wonderful gardens and The Stray.

"Cities such as Leeds have more and bigger multiples but not the range of quality independents and family-run restaurants."

Ogden jewellers, 38 James Street, Harrogate

Robert Ogden, director of Ogden, said: "In my view, Harrogate gets nearly everything right in terms of promoting its attractions as a place to live.

"It is almost crime-free and it has beautiful public spaces, has great arts events such as Harrogate International Festivals and the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival which attract visitors and plenty of good bars and restaurants, although the number of shops has reduced recently.

"As a destination for out-of-town visitors I do feel it needs to improve its offer to keep people in the town for longer, rather than losing them to York or Leeds.

"A regular shuttle bus to and from the Great Yorkshire Showground and RHS Harlow Carr would help bring visitors into the shopping area from these world class facilities.

"The trains from York or Leeds are also too infrequent and should be at least every half hour.

"In terms of marketing, businesses like Harrogate Water and Slingsby Gin both do a very very good for promoting Harrogate to the wider world.

"But a new slogan might also help promote the town's identity: if Cheltenham has 'Cultural Centre of the Cotswolds', perhaps Harrogate could lay claim to 'Cultural Centre of the Yorkshire Dales'?"

Baltzersens cafe, 22 Oxford Street, Harrogate

Paul Rawlinson, director of Baltzersens cafe, said: "The future of Harrogate town centre is a massive topic, one that's very difficult to broach.

"There is no cure for High Street retail. It will either evolve or the environmental conditions will force it into extinction. We need to have a plan for that happening over the five years.

"I think the best thing we can do to improve the town centre is vote ‘yes’ to the Harrogate BID at the end of this year.

"That way we can employ someone with talent and vision and give them some significant funding to start making a tangible positive impact.

"This person would also be entirely accountable to the businesses that vote for the BID, those of us operating in the town centre area.

"I would hope they would work closely with the Borough Council for maximum effect."

Bean & Bud speciality coffee house, 14 Commercial Street, Harrogate

Ruth Hampson of Bean & Bud said: " I very much feel that Harrogate Council could focus on areas other than Cold Bath Road/Montpellier which seem to get all the best signage, flowers, etc.

"I appreciate that this is the area that tourists see the most, but surely it's a chicken and egg situation.?

"For example, on Commercial Street we have been asking for years for a new road sign, as the current one is very small and old and not very visible.

"We have a number of small independent businesses doing great stuff (Cheeseboard, us, the bookshop etc).

"It would be good if people could see it. Also fingerpost signspointing to different shopping areas would be useful, rather than pointing everyone to the inevitable Betty's who frankly do not need the help."

The Dove Tree Art Gallery & Studio, Back Granville Rd, Harrogate

Owner of Dove Tree Studios and artist Anita Bowerman said: "It would be a good idea to introduce a themed town street festival once a year such as the Bridport Hat Festival so that the whole town centre comes alive with thousands of people enjoying perhaps live acts, food and drink, trade stalls, street artists, pop up art galleries.

"This would involve the local indie shops, restaurants and of course art galleries and studios.

"One perfect place for activities would be in Oxford Street, the precinct outside Baltzersens cafe."