What can be done to save the high street? One community shares their ideas
PUBLISHED: 08:00 11 January 2020
Calls have been made for Sudbury to play to its strengths of culture and leisure to help revitalise the high street.
Nationally, the retail industry has faced its worst year in 25 years, with household names like HMV and Debenhams amongst those to announce significant store closures.
Sudbury town centre is not immune from the rise of online shopping and the financial pressures of rates and rents, but it is far from doom and gloom, community leaders have said.
As dozens of empty units litter Sudbury town centre, a social media debate launched by resident Keith Grinsted has focused on the "opportunities" in the market town, which has long drawn creative minds.
Ideas floated in the responses included a cinema, pop-up spaces for artists and a hedgehog cafe.
Recently-appointed Sudbury town centre manager Rachel Price said: "Culture is obviously at the heart of revitalising the high street.
"People are talking about an experience economy now. I go to Sudbury on a Saturday because I love people watching. I love the market - that's a massive part of the town's identity and if we can't protect that we have real issues.
"I think we all need to think about why we venture out to the high street."
She said Sudbury cafes were doing "cracking" trade and the town boasted "the best charity shops in the UK".
Rather than viewing charity shops as a negative, she said they brought people into the high street and tapped into a shift in consumer culture towards being more eco-conscious.
Mr Grinsted said in the Sudbury Facebook group post: "We need to rethink the retail offering and create locations/destinations where people of all ages can come and have a positive experience.
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"I don't have the answers but surely, instead of complaining about the number of hairdressers or charity stores, we can think of places we'd like to have."
Miss Price said leisure and cultural activities also gave people another reason to use their town centres, adding: "We have a massive sense that there's a lot of creatives in Sudbury. There's a lot of artists, but there's not necessarily the provisions to have a studio."
Recent closures include Mountain Warehouse and Modifier Clothing, with long-standing bookshop Kestrel set to shut later this month.
READ MORE: Shopkeeper's anguish as 200-year-old business set to close
North Street is clogged up with vacant units, but businesses are also taking the risk to open up there, such as The Cradle vegan cafe and bakery, which is a community interest company.
In three years of trade, co-owner Holly Vigie said business had been "really good".
Robin Bailey, chairman of Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, said it's "certainly not doom and gloom", drawing attention to a public exhibition at the end of this month on proposals to transform Sudbury.
"We are concerned as most towns are, but if we compare Sudbury with other towns Sudbury is doing quite well," he said.
The Sudbury town centre vacancy rate was 8.4% in October 2019, compared to 10% nationally.
Michael Holt, Babergh District Council cabinet member for economic growth, said: "We understand the need to help our high streets to not only survive, but to thrive. Nationally, high streets are responding to changing consumer preferences and the demands of sustainability and online shopping. In fact, town centre vacancy rates for Sudbury are consistently lower than the national rate.
"We support local business in a range of ways, making sure they are fit for the future - whether through financial support, providing expert advice and information or through our investment in longer-term visions for our market towns. More information will be available about our future vision for the town at the 'What next for Sudbury' exhibition later this month."
Following the Facebook debate, Mr Grinsted said there was mileage in groups of people getting together to make approaches to landlords to establish hubs, such as for small businesses to share resources, perhaps with a retail element.
Miss Price described the challenge in getting landlords on board with utilising empty units, but the town council is actively trying to increase footfall in the town centre, such as the Christmas shop window exhibition.
She added: "We do have a responsibility as residents of Sudbury to ensure we use our high street."