ROWS of empty shops, closing down sales and derelict cafes are crippling family-owned businesses and driving shoppers away from Chester city centre, fear traders.
Just a week after Chester failed to secure a £10,000 grant from retail guru Mary Portas to revitalise the historic Rows, shops continue to close across the city with independently owned businesses struggling to compete with out of town shopping centres and neighbouring cities.
On a walk through the city on Tuesday (July 31) The Chronicle discovered 71 empty units, with dozens of restaurants, boutiques, cafes and food stores remaining unoccupied.
And although several of the closed shops are relocating to more prominent parts of the high street and planning applications have been launched to open new shops, traders fear the mounting number of closures will create a ‘bleak’ outlook which could stop visitors returning to the centre.
One year after it closed its doors, popular delicatessen Olio & Farina on Bridge Street remains an empty shell on the cafe-dominated street, while on Northgate Street the popular Hardy’s Sweet Shop and kitchen knife specialist Willow May recently closed their doors.
And up on the Rows, which were set to be the focus of a massive regeneration project if Portas’s bid had been given the green light, 16 shops remain empty as many people avoid the area, with Vom Fass on Watergate Rows and Nautical on Bridge Street Rows becoming the latest victims of the poor footfall.
Rod Cox, chairman of the Northgate Trader’s Association, said there was a danger of the shop closures creating a ‘domino’ effect throughout Chester, as shoppers stop coming into the centre due to the ever decreasing amount of independent retailers.
“In the past few weeks both Willow May and CS Austin Butchers have closed down in the Northgate Quarter,” said Mr Cox, who said that the whole city centre needed to be pedestrianised to encourage more footfall and traders to come to Chester.
“We have talked to CWaC and to Chester City Management and they said that we could have artwork in the shops. But in the end, these are just a bit of sticking plaster on a cut on an artery.
“It stops people noticing the damage for a while but then it peels off and needs permanently stitching up.”
The Grosvenor Shopping Centre has also been affected, suffering the loss of La Senza last week and yet more shops closed in The Forum this week.
But chief executive of Chester Renaissance, Rita Waters, said the city had fewer vacant shops than the national average and many of the closed shops were in the process of being taken over by new owners and some of the original traders had moved to more central parts of the high street.
“We have started a five month consultation to ask traders about what they want for the future of Chester and what needs to happen to attract more people through their doors,” she said.
“There are lots of things that we can do to encourage new traders, and there are several opening at the moment.
“In the past we have displayed art in the shop windows and that is something we are considering doing again.”
More information about the consultation can be found on the Chester Renaissance website – www.chesterrenaissance.co.uk.