FEARS for the future of the high street in Chester have prompted a new business-led attempt to revitalise the struggling city centre.
Chester was once ranked as one of the top shopping destinations
in the UK but has slumped down the retail rankings during the past 10 years.
Now major players in the city are teaming up with independent retailers and forming a new private-sector group that aims to reverse the decline and get the tills ringing once again.
Chester Racecourse, Chester Cathedral and the owners of Grosvenor Shopping Centre are among those backing the initiative which could bring in millions of pounds.
National chains Primark, Boots and Marks and Spencer are also involved along with independent retailers.
Together the group aims to secure business improvement district (BID) status for an area in the heart of the city embracing hundreds of shops, hotels, bars and restaurants.
“It’s no secret that Chester’s city centre businesses are facing real challenges,” said interim group leader Paul Daniels.
“Over the last 15 years, the city has moved from being in the top 10 in the national league table of retail centres down to the mid-30s . As well as increasing competition from out-of-town developments, businesses are being hard hit by a dramatic increase in online shopping.”
Mr Daniels, who runs thebestofchester, said progress had already been made with the formation of the CH1 Chester BID Company.
BIDs are business-led and funded bodies designed to improve defined commercial areas. About 170 towns and cities across the UK have BIDs, including Liverpool.
Businesses involved are asked to vote on whether or not to pay a levy on top of their business rates which is pooled together to fund improvements.
Mr Daniels said: “This is a real opportunity to help address those challenges, and partnership is the key.
“A BID in Chester will provide a really effective way of enabling our city centre businesses to come together and agree how they want to improve their own trading environment.
“It’s time to act, and a successful BID campaign by the CH1 Chester BID Company will deliver the change we need, not just to survive but to thrive.
“The key message now is not whether Chester wants a BID but how Chester will survive without one.”
Mr Daniels said the group would be talking to all businesses over the next few months and the proposed levy was one per cent of business rates, among the lowest in the uk.
Alex Sharpe, who runs Watergate Street Art Gallery, has joined the CH1 Chester Bid Company board.
Mr Sharpe said: “In this day and age businesses cannot realistically expect the local council to fund all the ‘add ons’ we would like to see in Chester, such as dedicated Chester marketing campaigns, welcome hosts throughout the city and increases in seasonal activities.
“I hope many other business owners and managers share our commitment to this city and will also be prepared to give time and money to the BID.
“I want the Watergate Street Art Gallery to be here in five, 10, 50 years and I genuinely feel a BID is the best option to achieving that.
Fellow board member Errol Edwards, general manager of Primark Chester, said: “I’ve seen at first hand the fantastic improvements delivered by other BIDs across the country where Primark has a store, including in Liverpool.
“The Liverpool BID now brings in more than £1m per annum from the city centre businesses, why not Chester?”
Roger Gorham, director of Grosvenor Shopping Centre joint owners Bride Hall, said Chester could not afford to be complacent.
Mr Gorham said: “Chester has stood still while other towns and cities have moved forward.
“We need to improve the physical environment and enhance and promote the city’s offer, making Chester a place where people want to visit, work and live.”
A new website is under construction and will provide more information on the Chester BID, the proposed boundary, board members and how businesses can get involved.
Rita Waters, chief executive of regeneration body Chester Renaissance, will be seconded to work with the CH1 Chester BID board.
In March opposition Labour councillors said Chester Renaissance should be replaced and Cheshire West and Chester Council leader Mike Jones said the body would ‘disappear’ should a BID be formed.