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Opinion: Maximise the potential of our precious Market Hall

Interior of Scarborough's refurbished Market Hall.
Interior of Scarborough's refurbished Market Hall.

We live in rapidly-moving times in terms of high streets, town centres and shopping trends: the very heart of many towns and cities are at risk of being devastated with the ongoing closure of many long-established stores – House of Fraser, BHS, Top Shop, HMV, Debenhams, M&S, Miss Selfridge et al. “Going to the shops” may be a thing of the past...

Clearly something else is quickly needed to stop the rot, and bring life back into town centres, and give them a new purpose. Scarborough is a classic example: dead shop windows, neglected public areas, apparent random developments and no real focus on where the real heart of the town is supposed to be....

This need not be the case – since 1853, Scarborough has had a vibrant heart – if you can find it, the Market Hall in St Helen’s Square. This magnificent building with great heritage has recently had the best part of £3 million spent bringing it back to life, and we must not miss the opportunity to maximise the potential this institution brings to drive change into the centre of our town.

Several other similarly-aged markets around the UK have recently undergone facelifts, and these rejuvenations have created vibrant, functional, relevant attractions. A visit to Altrincham market in Greater Manchester will give you an idea.

With the growing shift to online and out of town shopping, a successful market hall has to be a place of tradition, variety, entertainment, and modern functionality. In spite of our regular pursuit of cheaper food and better value – Aldi vs Lidl vs Proudfoot vs Tesco vs Sanisbury vs Morrisons – there is a developing trend, quite properly, to support those local producers, suppliers and entrepreneurs who have a story and message that accompanies their products. It’s not always about the price, it can be about the buying experience.

Our 165 year-old market can help us do this – a daily showcase of what is great in our local area and region, served by warm, friendly, local characters. It must be an enjoyable and effective place to shop, perhaps not every day, but it must be busy! I gather a quarter of a million pounds is earmarked for web development for online sales for market traders: this may be an important ingredient in overall success, but what a successful market needs above all else is regular footfall ie people.

Better to spend some of this cash on directional signage around the town, local signage outside the Market, and tidying up the immediate area. St Helen’s Square is perhaps not the most attractive part of town (well done Homebird House!) but it’s amazing what a bit of local pride can do. Also, once the council makes its mind up about what to do with the old Argos building, the whole centre of town will be radically uplifted. It may take a while, but the Market Hall has stood for 165 years, and isn’t going anywhere...

Once customers – locals and visitors alike – have found the Market, it’s important they are met by that exciting range of offers that are possible – there are at least six shop units empty on the ground floor – not a great welcome. Where is the fishmonger; the cheesemonger; the local pie shop; the wine bar? How about chef’s demonstrations using skills of the TEC’s students and local produce from the stallholders? I gather several enterprises have considered setting up in the Market, only to be put off by rents and business rates: a half empty Market is a disaster.

The landlord Scarborough Borough Council (SBC) must see the wisdom of encouraging new (and existing) traders with much lower (free for six months?) rentals, fit out cost support, and business plan aid. It is in everyone’s interests, (especially the council’s) to develop and establish the building as a centre of variety, activity, quality and excellence. Mediocrity must be banished!

Also, why are we promoting a monthly food market at the top of town in Westborough? Surely the logical place for these markets is in our own Market Hall to expose shoppers to what is available there on a regular basis. The resident traders are not at all fearful of competition, but they are wary of the echoing silence of no customers.

I suppose it’s all about accountability and innovation: it’s interesting to note that other successful market regenerations have often involved councils handing over ownership and control of the asset to a cooperative of trader owner/operators. The new holding company takes on marketing, setting affordable rents, management of common areas, and building a blend of offers to meet the customers’ needs. Food and drink form an important part of the Market’s activities; shopping is important, but often an incidental part of the social event.

Perhaps a new model is needed here in Scarborough to maximise the value of this precious asset. Traders and entrepreneurs with real focus, incentive and ownership make successful markets and retail experiences: landlords seldom do.