Shropshire Star comment: Rising to high street challenges
This week Mike Ashley, the boss of Sports Direct, told MPs that many high streets are already dead, and the culprit is the internet.
Happily that is not the experience of shoppers in Shrewsbury centre, which continues to be busy and bustling and offers a range of stores, from the big chains to small independents.
However, in painting a bleak picture, he is not scaremongering, but outlining something that is all too apparent in some places which have town centres which are blighted by empty shops.
The Christmas period will be as crucial as always. It will be an opportunity to take the temperature of our high streets and see which remain in rude health and which are ailing.
In Shrewsbury, Shropshire Council has a very direct commercial interest in seeing which way the retail wind is blowing. Earlier this year it completed the purchase of three shopping centres in the town at a cost of around £51 million.
While a lot of people will point to the risks of that investment, the council itself is pointing to the opportunities, allowing it to shape and tailor the commercial heart of the town in accordance with its regeneration ambitions.
The Riverside shopping centre is one area ripe for redevelopment, and work on demolishing it could start in 2020 as part of an overall strategic blueprint.
The framework aims for a wide mix of uses. As there does not seem much point in simply replacing an old shopping centre with a new one and hoping it will do better, this wider base offers the best prospects.
In these turbulent times there are going to be swings and roundabouts, underlined by the confirmation that the House of Fraser store in the town is to close on January 12.
It will be a sad loss of an old friend on the townscape – it is one of the county town’s oldest shops. In the past it was known as Della Porta’s, and later as Rackhams.
Every time a shop, big or small, closes, it is like a bleeding wound for the high street, and the danger is that cumulatively the lifeblood of towns can ebb away.
Shrewsbury is facing the same pressures and challenges as other traditional town centres but the ambitious plans in place offer the hope of renewed vibrancy – defying Mr Ashley’s pessimistic assessment.