CALLS are being made to revitalise Weymouth town centre as the number of empty shops continues to rise.
The Echo discovered there were 27 empty premises in the centre of town.
In February last year, the Echo found 20 properties vacant and three shops with closing down sales in the same area.
Julie Cleaver, president of Weymouth and Portland Chamber of Commerce, confirmed the chamber had a budget to look at the empty shops in Weymouth.
She said they would be looking at how to make the shops look more appealing to business owners as well as visually attractive.
This will tie in with the £100,000 marketing campaign to attract holidaymakers to Weymouth, funded by the Weymouth Business Improvement District (BID).
She said: “We are at the early stages. We are going to do it in conjunction with the brand launch.
“I’m not saying it’s the answer. It’s using the best of what we’ve got.”
She added: “It’s enticing people to come and use the area because of what they are seeing in the visuals.”
Councillor Ian Munro-Price, brief holder for economic development for Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, suggested the closure of shops was a sign of people’s changing shopping habits.
“I think that the town centre is one very visible part of the economy, but it’s not the whole economy” he said.
“It is a shame to see boarded up shops and restaurants. It’s a national problem in some ways. It seems as though we as consumers don’t shop in town centres in the way that we used to.”
Coun Munro-Price’s claim coincides with the government’s latest plans to assist small high street businesses.
A high street tax break is set to be implemented across the country to assist 300,000 retail shops in the next few weeks.
Retail premises will be eligible for an annual £1,000 discount over the next two years if they are occupied and have a rateable value below £50,000.
Coun Munro-Price suggested town centres will reinvent themselves as social hubs, which in turn will help draw more people to the area.
He revealed his own company Red House Estate Agents had recently taken over an empty shop in Westham Road.
Coun Munro-Price added: “Buildings in the commercial centre won’t stay empty for too long.”
However, a number of properties still remain vacant despite closing more than a year ago.
The Shirt Shack in Coburg Place closed down in November 2012, a decision influenced by poor trading and increased business rates. Its building has since been left unoccupied, still displaying posters from the shop’s closing down sale.
The increasing number of empty properties sheds a new light on the Olympic legacy for the Weymouth area.
Olympic related schemes helped implement £177 million of funding into the Weymouth and Portland area for facilities, regeneration and transport projects.
Mark Blunden, a renewable energy advisor at Puragen, a company based in Dorchester, said he would like to see local and national authorities take greater advantage of the Olympic legacy.
He said: “It has been a missed opportunity and we’ve had this millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on the infrastructure, but the circus arrived, the circus left.”
New research, however, does suggest there’s been a marked improvement in the number of empty shops on the UK’s high streets.
The Local Data Company revealed average vacancy rates were below 14 per cent for the first time in four years.
Speaking before this research was published, Mr Blunden said Weymouth was faring better than other towns and cities.
He said: “If you look at the national average of shops closed percentage per town centre, then Weymouth is above average.
“It might not look it when you walk around and see the boarded-up shops, but there is too much retail based on demand. “Weymouth has a little too much retail. I could take you to towns around the country where they’re far worse off than we are.”
The area surveyed included St Thomas Street, St Mary Street, Bond Street, New Bond Street, School Street, Westham Road, Frederick Place, Coburg Place, Great George Street, St Alban Street and St Edmund Street.
The figure included five empty units at Colwell Shopping Centre on School Street.
MIDDLE CLASS TOURISTS TARGETED BY CAMPAIGN
BUSINESSES hope a new marketing campaign will attract middle class holidaymakers to Weymouth.
Details and artwork from the £100,000 campaign, which is funded by the Weymouth Business Improvement District (BID), was unveiled yesterday.
Scores of levy payers flocked to the Mulberry Gallery at Weymouth Library to find out more.
The marketing initiative, which will also include a website, is a move away from the resort’s traditional bucket and spade image.
It comes after the BID, which was voted in by town centre traders last year, identified promoting Weymouth and tackling seasonality as among its main priorities.
Christchurch marketing company RLA successfully pitched for the campaign.
It is designed to plug the gap left by cuts to tourism funding in the borough.
Groups of people specifically targeted by the campaign are ‘busy bees’ and ‘empty nesters’.
These are described as ‘professional’ families with young children who live in cul-de-sacs and are ‘reasonably well off’, spend their weekends on mini-breaks and have ‘money to spend’.
The other target audience is ‘empty nesters’, couples who are still very active and whose children have left home.
Sophie Kermani Jibet, of The Dining Room, praised the marketing initiative and urged other business owners to make the most of it.
She said: “If we look at London and Amsterdam and a lot of other places – they all have this type of branding.
“Something needs to be done to attract more people to Weymouth and the council has no funding to do it.
“We can’t just sit back and wait for something to happen.
“If you have a business in Weymouth we should all work together to get more people to the town.”
Levy payer and tourism marketer Andy Cooke said: “I think it is a great brand and investment.
“Those creative people in the town will be able to run with it and make the most of something positive.”
Emma Cogan, of The Dorset Burger Company, said: “I really like the brand – it looks really exciting.
“We have backed some of the BID events before and we really want to be involved in this.
“It is a chance for Weymouth to show what it has to offer.”
However, Mark Noble, of Weymouth creative agency Supreme PBA, questioned why the BID had gone to a company outside of the borough for branding.
He said: “It seems like people in the town have been hit with this idea but not asked to contribute in any way.
“I would have liked to have been involved in that process. It does look interesting though.”
Some residents expressed their concern over the new advertising, which neglects to mention or picture Portland and is funded by BID levy payers, of which Weymouth and Portland Borough Council is a major contributor.
- THE advertising campaign will be formally unveiled to the public at the Best of Dorset show being held at Weymouth Pavilion on March 30.
'CLOSURES IMPACT US ALL'
MARY Reese of Ladybirds in St Alban Street said the closure of other shops has a negative impact on business.
“When every other shop is closed, it doesn’t do us any good whatsoever.
“If we could afford it, we would move into the main street. But we can’t afford it, so we stay here and then we’re waiting for the summer trade.”
Ms Reese added: “I think the individual shops are what we need here, and that’s what we’ve tried in this street.”
The clothes shop has been based in Weymouth for the past 15 years. Ms Reese said the shop didn’t benefit from the arrival of the Olympics.
“Everybody came for the sport. It was absolutely heaving. The volume of people was fantastic, but it didn’t do us any good whatsoever.”
A NUMBER OF PROJECTS TO HELP
ALISON Theobald, co-chairman of the Weymouth Business Improvement District (BID), said they were looking at a number of projects to help the town.
Ms Theobald said: “A vibrant town would appeal to more people but equally there are always opportunities to be had with empty premises on every high street.
“When looking at client perception, the more shops that are full the better.
“But I think it’s also important to get the right shops.”
She added: “We’ve got a number of objectives within our business plan, but one of those is to help to improve the vibrancy, feel and experience of the town centre and obviously attract people to visit Weymouth as a destination.”
EMPTY SPACES 'CREATES NEGATIVE IMAGE'
GARY and Sue Seymour recently re-opened Mama’s Spaza Shop in the Colwell Centre on School Street.
The shop sells South African convenience food and has enjoyed a steady flow of South African and English customers.
The joint owners believe the centre’s empty units are creating a negative image.
Mr Seymour said: “That is the biggest thing: the image of the centre itself. People have got to try and get this image out of their head that this is a rubbish centre and that everything’s shut down.
“It is not at all. I would go the opposite and say it is one of the places that can really take off.”
Plans have been drawn up to open an indoor market on the centre’s upper level.
MP AIMS TO TACKLE HIGH BUSINESS RATES
RICHARD Drax, MP for South Dorset, said he recognised the problems high business rates presented but revealed that work was underway to tackle the issue.
“A lot is being done.
“A lot of pressure is being applied to try and meet the wishes of small businesses, not least in the shops of Weymouth and other towns across the country.
“Business rates have often come to my attention.
“It is raised frequently.”
Mr Drax added: “Ultimately, a business will survive – whether it’s any business, small or big – on whether it makes a profit.
“That’s why we have to think as a government, at a macro side, how to make that infrastructure a level playing field as far as we can so that small to medium sized business can grow.”
He added: “The local authority and the Chamber of Trade and others have got to ensure that the correct environment is created in the town so that local shops are encouraged to open and survive.”
Mr Seymour added: “The problem we’ve got is filling these units downstairs.”