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Why it’s Time to Reconnect with Our Town Centres

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What do entrepreneurs, town centres and economic recovery have in common? The answer might not be as obvious but they all have a part to play as we look at life post pandemic.

Following a challenging eighteen months, there will be few amongst us who haven’t stopped to think and take stock of what the future holds. Furlough, redundancy or caring for a relative has meant that many have been off work for a prolonged period – forced to re-evaluate priorities.

Despite the challenges, new opportunities have emerged. Many of us have had a chance to start afresh and to be creative. It has also meant that those who had always dreamt of being their own boss have been able to take the plunge.

Setting-up a business can be daunting. But our world post Covid-19 will mean there are a host of new factors to consider as well as opportunities that didn’t exist before. We need to capitalise on these to maximise our recovery efforts.

It’s no secret that town centres have experienced huge change over the past few years – and North Wales towns are no different. Research from 2018 showed that 16.8% of properties on the Welsh high street were vacant, this even before the pandemic took its toll.

We’ve seen big names leave the high street due new shopping behaviours, leaving empty units behind. With this though, possibilities emerge for smaller home-grown business to move into that space with an alternative offer and a new vision for the high street.

David ap John Williams is National Contracts Manager at Business Wales. He explains:

“Starting a business is something many aspire to and due to a whole new set of circumstances, we’re seeing more people across the region setting up their own business. With more available space in our towns there’s also chance to capitalise on the shift in our work and social habits.

“As we’re still trying to understand the full impact of the pandemic, it is clear that town centres have been severely impacted. We think it’s now time to think differently about the high street. It is no longer the domain of big brands. This offers local entrepreneurs exciting opportunities to be innovative and make use of the space that has become available. This is a chance to develop our town centres as a place of work and for new business to flourish.”

The change in shopping habits is not all bad news for town centres – with more holidaying at home and a growth in demand for local products and services. Customers are keener than ever to support local businesses, and with an increased appreciation for the importance of community comes the potential for increased footfall.

David adds:

“By being located in one of our town centres, business owners can be close to amenities and services, but more importantly they will be close to people. After an extended period where we’ve been confined to our homes – we’re now able to get out there again and meet people. It’s a chance to re-connect with society as well as play a part in that all-important recovery.

“Traditionally our town centres were the heart of the community and a focus for local trade. With new opportunities opening up, this could be the case once again as local companies and small business become the heartbeat of our towns. Establishing a business in a town means you get to become a part of the greater community. The better the connections you can make with customers, the more successful your business will be.”

To encourage start-ups and recently established ventures, Business Wales is offering a grant from the Welsh Government alongside match funding from the Development Bank of Wales to help people locate in the centre of Bangor, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Wrexham.

David explains:

“Although the past year and a half has been an exceptionally challenging time for businesses and our town centres, we believe that here is great potential and it’s important that we do everything we can to realise that potential.”

The new fund not only aims to give entrepreneurs the incentive to go ahead and set up their business in one of the four north Wales towns, but to revive those town centres too.

There are also a range of other Welsh Government initiatives designed to support Town Centres and make them a great place to do business. This includes the Transforming Towns programme that is providing £136 million to help support the economic and social recovery of our town and city centres in every corner of Wales.

This investment remains vital in supporting our town centres and is delivering major capital projects which are repurposing empty property and land in town centres across Wales. It is delivering a £50m programme in north Wales focussed on supporting the vibrancy of our town centres, enabling job creation and improving community facilities.

Another initiative from the Welsh Government is the SMART Towns project, which aims to help businesses to make the best use of digital technology, for example using data to better understand their customer base and trends to inform their future planning and marketing activities. This initiative raises awareness of SMART technology, its application and its benefits in towns across Wales.

Economy Minister Vaughan Gething said:

“Our town centres have been severely impacted by the pandemic, but there is also a great deal of potential there too.  The Town Centre Entrepreneurship Fund pilot in four north Wales towns aims to give entrepreneurs a helping hand to set up business there, which will also increase activity and footfall.”

So, what do entrepreneurs, town centres and economic recovery have in common? Like everything else, we’ve learnt over the past year, they can all benefit each other – with opportunities emerging out of challenging situations and changing behaviours.

To learn more and to apply for the Town Centre Entrepreneurship Fund visit the Business Wales website, https://businesswales.gov.wales/business-wales-town-centre-entrepreneurship-fund, or contact one of the North Wales advisors on 01745 585025.