Observer column: 07 October 2016
Retail is an important part of any town centre. But our town centres are changing fast. Squeezed by out-of-town retail parks and internet sales, footfall and sales in all town centres have been declining consistently for many years. Online sales have grown from less than two percent of total purchases to over 15% last year. So our town centres have changed: more cafes and clothing shops, fewer shops selling 'comparison' goods.
In Hastings, we have three principal retail centres: Hastings Town Centre, St Leonards Town Centre, and the Old Town. In Hastings Town Centre, Priory Meadow is fully let, apart from the old BHS store, and there are potential tenants lined up for that as soon as the building is released. The Old Town rarely has vacant shops, and does well as the place tourists are most likely to visit. With regeneration of the seafront, the America Ground around Trinity Triangle has undergone a renaissance, with entertainment venues such as the Printworks, quality independent shops, and appealing cafes appearing there.
St Leonards Town centre does have a higher proportion of empty shops than other areas at the moment, particularly King's Road, but new businesses are moving in. Norman Road especially is establishing itself as a fashionable browsing centre, with cafes, antiques, galleries and the Kino-Teatr restaurant & cinema attracting people there.
Even Queen's Road is beginning to change. Viewed as the rather sad, down-at-heel entrance to the town centre for too long, it's establishing itself as a new destination. Recent businesses taking on formerly dilapidated or empty shops include Queen's Road Emporium, a couple of new licensed premises including the refurbished Imperial and Bar None, cafes such as The Cookhouse, Cafe Rue de Perra and the Oregano Leaf, along with several quirky new shops, selling anything from antiques and furniture to chocolate.
The council's 'Grotbusting' programme helps here too, forcing property owners to improve the look of their premises and make the place more attractive to anyone wanting to set up shop. Some businesses, such as Kino-Teatr, benefited from the council's SUCCESS grants programme - that's finished now, but we'll keep looking for new funding sources for similar schemes. But all of this happens because of the ingenuity and enthusiasm of those wanting to try their hand at retail and catering, often for the first time.
Changes in the way we shop and work have had mixed effects. Many of the high street chains that dominated our town centres over the last 30 years have declined or disappeared, but this has allowed more independent shops to return. Far fewer people are employed in conventional, full time permanent jobs than they used to be, which, while leading to decreased job security, has led to more people becoming self-employed, and prepared to have a go at something new, like running a shop. Sometimes that doesn't work out, but often it does, and formerly run-down areas get more interesting, become somewhere to visit, shop and enjoy.
So as our town centres continue to change, the creative spirit that flourishes in Hastings will exploit those changes. We can't all make a living just by selling stuff to each other, there has to be more to a local economy than that. But retail in Hastings is far from dying - it's just changing, and some would say for the better.
Council Leader's column