The number of empty shops is on the rise in Melton but those responsible for the town’s economy say it is in a healthier state than many other market towns and that big plans are in place to increase footfall and attract new retailers.
The announcemement by Thorntons that it is to close its store on South Parade next week sparked a flurry of social media comments from residents concerned that Melton was not an attractive enough location for national brands to thrive in.
The prospect of another vacant unit comes at a time when there are a number of empty shop premises on Sherrard Street, Notingham Street and Leicester Street as well as no less than eight properties without a tenant in the Bell Centre shopping mall.
But Melton BID, an organisation run by local business people to stimulate economic growth and tourism, said the town had fewer empty units than the national average and that traders were benefiting from a number of innovative digital and marketing initiatives.
The BID is also working with the borough council and other stakeholders to create a new Melton town brand identity, and funding is being sought to help raise the profile of the place to attract more businesses to set up as well as an increase in shoppers and tourists.
Shelagh Core, manager of Melton BID, told the Melton Times: “Melton, like other town centres is seeing the closure of nationals and regionals on its high street and decreasing footfall.
“The town’s vacancy rate increased to seven per cent in February, rising from five per cent in December and January, as we have seen closures of businesses and lease ends, but as a town we are holding our own and bucking trends.
“The national vacancy rate in the UK was 9.9 per cent in January, worse than the January 2018 rate of 8.9 per cent, and overall retail footfall dropped by 0.7 per cent in January to mark a 14th consecutive month of decline.
“Yet our town centre independent retailers continue to grow and expand, taking advantage of larger units becoming available, and at 69 per cent of all town centre businesses, independents represent the heart of our town.
“We are also seeing a rise in new restaurants and eateries, taking on long term vacant units.”
Among the empty retail units in Sherrard Street at present are those previously occupied by the My Cost Saver supermarket, Coral bookmakers and the Flower Paradise shop.
In Market Place, the old LOROS charity shop remains vacant, along with the former e-cigarettes shop and the old Vodaphone premises.
Other prominent empty shops in the town centre are those formerly occupied by Richard Watkinson & Partners Estate Agents and Subway, although the latter is understood to be reopening again soon.
Melton BID says it is committed to supporting existing and new start-up businesses with grant schemes to enhance shop frontages, free business recycling schemes and initiatives to attract visitors like the Town Guide App and free WiFi.
Mrs Core added: “As a town centre, like any other, facing online competition and out of town competition, Melton is again bucking trends.
“A recent Digital High Street report has shown that in the last year, the number of Melton businesses with a website presence has increased from 42.8 per cent to 63.7 per cent , with a 71 per cent increase from 2017 to 2018 of e-commerce adoption and a 71.22 per cent increase on social media adoption.
“However, investment and a visioning strategy for the town centre is critical and the BID is part of the new stakeholder group, the Town and Place Partnership, which is developing a Destination Management Plan and vision for Melton Mowbray, which it is hoped will attract residents, visitors and investors alike to our town centre.”
Melton Council is working with the BID team and other stakeholders to submit a bid to the Government’s Future High Street Fund, which aims to help town centres cope with modern day challenges.
The authority says it is helping businesses set up in the town, such as the major renovation of the historic King Street property to enable BeerHeadZ to move in, it has spent £400,000 building new public toilets, although they have opened later than originally planned, and it is also working on phase two of the re-development of the cattle market, with the Round Corner Brewing brewery and tap room opening up.
The council also believes the plans for 4,000 new homes to be built in the town as part of the new Local Plan will also increase spending and support local businesses.
A borough council spokesperson said: “Melton Borough Council is taking several steps to ensuring the town centre is a pleasant environment in which to live, work and visit.
“Melton has invested in developing a Destination Management Plan which has brought together several key stakeholders and partners from across the district to identify a shared vision, which will dictate how we work together to develop Melton.
“A key element of this shared vision is around reinventing our town centre to provide the services and experiences our residents, workers and visitors will want both now and in the future.”
Property agents, Shouler & Son, say there has been a change in the way town centre retail units are used.
Partner Helen Montague said: “While empty shops in the high street are sadly a symptom of a poor consumer economy, with Brexit adding to the uncertainty, it is important to look at the number of shop vacancies in our town as an opportunity to bring something interesting and new to the high street, by re-imagining the way we shop, meet and interact with one another.
“Things are starting to show signs of moving away from traditional retail uses of shops with more community-focused uses being where things are now. We have seen a trend in enquiries from operators looking to provide town centre sport and dance facilities, hospice community centres, youth centres and baby play rooms with more of a focus on destination and leisure facilities. A former retail unit in town has now become a wellness centre, and a former estate agents a vegan café.
“Things are changin, and we are seeing landlords being more open minded to move with this shift to a re-invention of the high street, by offering reduced rent incentives and considering alternative uses and flexible lease terms.”