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Review Article of the Month - October 2011
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Rochford to Let or for Sale?
You would have to be an alien from outer space not to know that we are in difficult financial times. That may be the reason that in South Street and West Street over the last year there have been half a dozen businesses move out, or an in the process of moving out. Moving out is a gentle way of saying ‘shutting down’.
Having spoken with the vast majority of shop owners in central Rochford over the past twelve months, if one thing is clear it is that it is not clear always why shops are shutting down. To try to be a bit more specific, there are probably a number of reasons why those shops have not been succeeding.
For some, the world has been changing at an alarming rate and having a small shop unit in a small town is now hardly viable. The book market is perhaps a classic example of this. Many who do still buy paper books will go either to the big stores with a large range of books or, as has increasingly been happening over recent years, online firms such as Amazon have been taking an increasing market share. When they will respond to virtually any book enquiry with a positive answer, and one that is usually cheaper than in even the big stores AND have no charge for postage, it is a very uneven playing field. Online firms who also supplement their sales by regular postal shots, such as The Book People, again catering for very cheap books, makes it increasingly difficult for small local stores to be sustained.
If you saw our Interview with Jo of Studio Rochford, you may remember that she commented on the changing portrait market, especially to do with weddings where so many guests carry digital cameras with no cost copying and sending to the happy couple afterwards. Another increasingly difficult market.
When I was a child, in the village where I lived, the Grocers catered for most things but probably with a range that would be dwarfed by the stock of today’s shops. They also shut at 5.30 or 6.00 in the evening. Rochford now has 4 “Stores” that stay open until 11.00pm! Ashingdon has one dedicated Off-Licence but there are at least 6 stores that have shelves of alcohol. Newspapers, magazines and cards can also be purchased in a large number of the shops. There are clearly a number of areas where a newcomer would not be advised to venture.
So what other guidelines are there to help anyone wondering about making use of the empty properties in the middle of town? Well we have cafes, coffee shops and tea rooms, most of whom provide cheap meals as well as drinks. I am told we’re about to have a wine bar. We have an English Restaurant, Chinese and Indian Restaurants and Takeaways and in the surrounding areas an increasing number of Pubs provide good food. If you want to start up a new food shop or restaurant, you’re going to have to think very cleverly about what it will be.
Rochford has one Pharmacy and Ashingdon has two. You need to be qualified to start up there! We have one top rate traditional jeweller, one specialist glass jewellery shop, and several shops selling ‘gifts’. Not much space there. In Rochford and Ashingdon we have at least six ‘charity shops’, so that’s probably enough! We have at least five dedicated bakeries selling excellent quality bread and cakes, and the big stores also provide some. We have one dedicated butcher and one dedicated greengrocer, but as the stores also provide meat and greengrocery, you’re going to have to be pretty canny to break into that world. At the present we have one medium price-quality clothes and accessories shop, one quality clothes bring-and-sell clothes shop, one children’s fashion clothes shop (supplemented by online selling) and one children’s and young people’s clothes and specialised uniforms shop. Of course the ‘charity shops’ also have cheap end second hand clothes. Clothes tend to be the prerogative of large stores in Southend.
Perhaps the answer is to take down all the Letting or For Sale Boards and decorate all the clearly empty buildings and make them look great. OK to appease the Estate Agents a small standard sign in each window saying who the agent is. Anything to get us away from these scruffy depressing boards which, if they increase in number any more will shout to all and sundry, “This is a run down place! You don’t want to come here!” . Maybe, after all, it’s just a matter of presentation and then some clever thinking. Somebody.... please....
And how about poor old Roche Close? Some of the best modern buildings in Rochford but apparently leading nowhere. Can we have a sign pointing to us, two occupants recently asked me. You might have thought with the Library at one end and the Co-Op at the other it wouldn’t lack pedestrians but it’s the quietest part of town whenever I walk down it. A little sparkle needed perhaps?
So am I painting a dismal picture of Rochford town centre? Only in as far as there seem to be an increasing number of empty properties. As far as food provision, Rochford is a good place to live. Papers, cards, gifts, jewellery, we’ve got it all. Hours of opening? Wonderful! Specialist children’s clothing and second hand clothing? Yes, plenty of that too! Opticians, doctors, dentists, hairdressers, beauticians, we’ve got them all.
So what does that leave us? Are we fully catering for our main needs as a small town? Is there room for small shop businesses beyond what we have? In our recent article with Councillor Gillian Lucas-Gill she pointed out that we have a large elderly population and also quite a large number of not-so-well-off families. Elderly? Would a permanent chiropodist right in the centre of town be welcome? What else do the elderly want that is not being provided for at present? Low incomes? A cheap-end shoe shop to replace the one that went earlier this year? What else?
Having empty and/ or boarded up shops around, doesn’t do the image of the town any good. Is there any other way of changing the nature of the town? Being the old town that it is with needs of vehicle access to shops, changing the feel by pedestrianising large areas is a no-go. Pedestrianising the Square would appear of little point unless it had regular entertainment / fairs etc. to draw people into the centre, or a cafe culture? A big challenge. Having the main big car park accessible only from one end is psychologically bad news. As one ‘specialist ‘ shopkeeper said, getting people to come here is easy as far as we are a one-off, but once they get here it is not welcoming as far as parking is concerned. The square is often clogged up and if they miss the Car Park sign in South Street they either have to plough down West Street or wend their way all round the outside again, which is not very welcoming. At least have access to the big car park from both ends.
What else? Reduced rates for the first two years of letting? Reduced rents for the same period? It costs a lot to set up a shop and some serious encouragement seems needed. With the greatest respect, the “Shop Locally” campaign is virtually never heard of and has no teeth. Should we be turning empty shops into classy offices for professionals? Do we want to encourage solicitors, accountants etc. with cheap premises? (it’s better that they be cheap than empty!)