SPECIAL REPORT: How healthy is Boston’s high street?

BOSTON’S high street suffered a triple blow last week, with the loss of Yates & Greenhough and Millets followed by the news that Game will close its Strait Bargate store.

The bad news came after the positive annoucement that the town’s Peacocks and Bon Marche stores were saved by takeovers. So how healthy is Boston’s retail scene?

Council leaders and experts stress that the town is still better off than most and are banking on a revamped Market Place providing the springboard to attract visitors to spend their cash here.

But one established business told The Standard that his takings are down 10 per cent and that many fellow retailers are struggling.

The traders, who did not wish to be namesd said firms are sceptical about the Market Place and fear the loss of car parking spaces with the revamp is a backward step.

A check on the ‘vacancy rates’ last year put Boston at about 7.6 per cent – almost half the national average for empty shops – and Boston BID manager Niall Armstrong reckons that is evidence that we are not among the worst affected.

He said: “Boston is suffering like everyone else – the whole country is suffering.

“Historically though we have suffered less than other places. I was in Grantham a couple of weeks ago and it makes Boston look positively thriving in comparison.

“That’s no consolation for Yates & Greenhough, Millets and Game and I’m not making light of the situation. We need to be looking at what we can do to promote Boston.”

Pescod Square opened in 2004 as a town centre ‘shopping centre’ and contains big name draws such as Next and Waterstones as well as the aforementioned Peacocks and Bon Marche.

The centre attracts 3.5 million visits a year – about 66,000 a week – and although visitor numbers dropped slightly in 2011 after a couple of years’ growth, the numbers for 2012 are holding steady.

Centre manager Andy Pottle said: “Our footfall for January was up, last week we were up on the same week last year, the week before we were down and the week before we were up – there’s no real trend at the moment.

“I would be disappointed if we weren’t holding our own against last year because last year we were three per cent down. The two previous years saw increases, this year we are flatlining.”

The twin threats of the internet and supermarkets – stocking almost everything at knock-down prices – were blamed for Yates & Greenhough’s demise.

Mr Pottle believes the town must play on its strengths to highlight the features not available from a computer or out-of-town superstore.

He added: “For the shops that have gone it must be devastating and for us to walk past them it is troubling. I don’t like to see empty shops – it does give that negative view. We need to overcome that.

“We need to be innovative. Supermarkets don’t have 700 years of history that we have got – we’ve got the Guildhall, the cultural quarter and the Stump – people need to be made aware of that.”

Mr Pottle is part of a team bidding to become a ‘Portas Pilot’ town, which would see 12 places in the country get £100,000 to spend on their town centres.

He hopes that even if Boston’s effort is not successful the work being done at the moment will at least bear some fruit.

He said: “The town has got some great features, it just needs people to work together for a common goal.”

THE £2 million refurbishment of Boston Market place is due to finish at the end of this month, and council bosses hope it will make the town more attractive to visitors.

The scheme will create a ‘town plaza’ and Boston Borough Council hopes it will spark a pavement café culture for open-air entertainment with a programme of summer events in the pipeline and a permanent buskers’ corner planned.

To tie in with that the council and English Heritage have launched a shop front grants scheme to try to enhance the appearance of traders bordering on the new-look Market Place.

The project has met with controversy because it reduces the number of car parking spaces and caused disruption for businsess during the work.

Mr Pottle said: “I know the Market Place has has been semi-controversial but I am glad they have had the courage to proceed.

“We need to move on to what we are going to do with the town square because we have a town square that some places would kill for.”

The council says the scheme will improve the market which is set to return after an eight-month spell in Wide Bargate, and help capitalise on the history of the town, described by English Heritage as the most important market town in the East Midlands.

Boston Borough Council’s contribution was £450,000, £1.1 million came from the European Regional Development Fund, £250,000 from the disbanded Boston Area Regeneration Company and £200,000 from Lincolnshire County Council.

This investment is set to attract an additional £500,000 from English Heritage, which will be used to subsidise the refurbishment of buildings in the town’s conservation area.

l Property owners can contact Conservation Project Officer Liz Bates for advice about what work will be eligible for a grant by calling 01205 314339 or emailing liz.bates@boston.gov.uk

l What do you think? Will the Market Place give the town a boost or are you concerned over the loss of parking? Contact us on andrew.brookes@jpress.co.uk