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Swansea City Centre’s Steady Evolution Adds Up To A Bright Future

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As Swansea and its city centre looks ahead to a bright future, thanks to the unprecedented regeneration investment and the refashioning of some of its key sites to create a more balanced city centre, Swansea BID (Business Improvement District) chief executive, Russell Greenslade reflects upon the past year and what lies ahead for businesses and consumers in Swansea.

What BID activities are you most proud of in the past year and what is unfolding to support BID area businesses? 

Swansea BID has worked very hard to support its businesses during the Covid pandemic in facilitating financial support, free staff training, promotion, cost reduction schemes and a number of other key initiatives.  BID’s consumer-facing Big Heart of Swansea Brand gives businesses across the city centre free promotion via its social media channels, helping them to reach many thousands of consumers. We supported the local authority in securing funding for four Covid rangers to help the existing ranger team during the height of the pandemic.  In the past few days we have launched a new Big Heart of Swansea gift card. The card, which is exclusive to Swansea city centre, is designed to boost local spending and customer loyalty and to support BID area businesses as the city centre goes through its recovery stage. The new cards are available to buy online and from participating businesses in denominations from £5-£500 and they can be used with a variety of participating businesses in the city centre on shopping, food and drink, accommodation, leisure and attractions and services. The Big Heart of Swansea Gift Card will be part of the Town and City Gift Card programme from fintech Miconex, which has already proven to be a success in Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport.

We sourced more than 5,000 items of PPE from local businesses to keep the spend local supporting the foundation economy, provided companies with free risk assessments working with local professional consultants, COVID safe and messaging posters and thousands of keeping your distance floor decals. Through our long-standing relationship with the University of Wales Trinity St David’s, we took delivery of around 1k visors to provide to our businesses, helping them get back on their feet quickly when reopening. We led on the outdoor adaption grant for the BID area. We worked with eligible businesses to provide over £280,000 in grant funding to transform their outside areas, enabling them to trade through and beyond Covid in line the Government guidelines.

How do you see the city centre evolving, and is the focus upon more leisure, residential and office sites the right direction to go in?

City centre retail cannot survive without shoppers, so increasing the number of people who live and work in the city centre in vital – whether these are students living in the new purpose-built accommodation, workers who will be at the new library site and other city centre hubs, or people who move into the new residential sites created by Copr Bay Phase One. Retail investors need evidence of steady footfall before they will invest, so this is an important stage in the process of getting important inward investment.

Swansea isn’t Bristol, Liverpool or Cardiff. It is a very different kind of city that retains a more quirky, characterful, approachable personality. I think many people appreciate this and enjoy the independents and the market, and the proximity to the beach. We see, every year, how many students come here from elsewhere and stay here because the lifestyle here is unique. The ongoing developments will do much to give Swansea city centre better focal points and a stronger identity – and perhaps a stronger sense of pride.

Do you survey BID members, if so what are their priorities?

Yes. We survey BID area businesses ahead of drawing up our five year and our yearly plans and their responses feed into our operations, under the broad themes of Welcoming & Enhancing, Promoting & Supporting, Representing & Influencing. Our plan for the five years ahead includes scaling up our services, investing in data, digital and technology to provide more insight, green infrastructure projects, attracting more visitors and greater collaborative working with public sector partners.

Do you see any particular retail trends emerging in the city centre?

We have seen, in the past few years, Swansea city centre become a honeypot for good quality and interesting food and beverage outlets and we are also seeing our hospitality sector continuing to evolve. We are particularly proud of the steady and ambitious investment our city centre businesses have made in recent years – and throughout very challenging times – to upgrade their businesses and to prepare for the exciting future that Swansea is facing. As far as retail is concerned, we have always been very well-served in Swansea city centre with vibrant independents. They pulled out all the stops to serve people during the lockdowns and they are continuing to prove their worth. I think we will continue to see more independents, run by people with a vested interest in Swansea and with local roots, springing up. I was interested to see how popular RAVS Vintage was during our recent Student Event, and Flamingo Vintage is a fairly new addition to the city centre, alongside Hobo’s, which has been trading for many years. I think the vintage market will continue to grow as young people drive the environmental debate.

How important are the Swansea Council-led redevelopment schemes, such as Swansea Arena, Oceana and The Kingsway work?

The very impressive ongoing regeneration, that, let’s not forget, has been marching on apace despite one of the hardest economic periods for the local economy and the local authority, shows real ambition and a commitment to a modern, growing city. The sight of cornerstone developments like the arena and the bridge are great morale-boosters and the developments have certainly provided a trigger to our businesses to invest in their own future in Swansea. The fact that Swansea Council has also looked at its own workforce and services and committed to moving some of them into the city centre itself is very important, both symbolically and in reality. And – I keep banging this drum –  but investors from outside the area are watching and assessing our city centre to weigh up its attractiveness. The more confident we are the more investment we will see. That is why it is crucial that we drop the negative narrative that has become a bit of a fall-back position in some quarters. It is corrosive.

Given that most of us shop online every week can the high street survive in the medium to long term?

High streets across the UK have been going through major changes for a number of years in line with the ongoing shifts in the shopping habits, working habits and leisure pursuits of the population. We are all a part of this trend and while some might be nostalgic for the past, things do change.  It would be irresponsible for any of us to stick our head in the sand about this, all stakeholders are well aware of these changes, and BIDs, local authorities and businesses make and enact strategies to meet these changes intelligently. We are particularly proud of the steady and ambitious investment that our city centre businesses have made in recent years – and throughout very challenging times – to upgrade their businesses and to prepare for the exciting future that Swansea is facing.   We have seen, for some years, the growing trend for experiences in the city centre, and these experiential businesses help to keep visitors in the city centre for a longer duration. These sites have been impacted by Covid and by social distancing, but they are very valuable to consumers and to footfall.