Carlisle will continue to attract national firms despite Dickinsons closure, says council chief
Despite the looming closure of another traditional high street store in Carlisle, bosses say the city is still on the wish list for a number of national retailers.
Jane Meek, Carlisle City Council's director of Economic Development, said her authority is confident it can continue to attract national firms - when the time is right.
It comes after the boss of Dickinsons - the latest Carlisle casualty - called on councils to do more to prevent the demise of traditional high-street stores.
John Spreadbury, chief executive, said independents are falling victim to a perfect storm of online shopping and out-of-town retail parks which offer unlimited free parking.
News that the Victoria Viaduct store is to close with the loss of around a dozen jobs came as a bitter blow, and was was followed by announcements that two other long-established businesses in the area will either close or pull out.
The owner of one of those firms – Margie's, at Bush Brow – confirmed that her business has been hit by competition from cheap imports and online retailers.
Dickinsons has been trading at a loss as its staff also battled to sell products in the face of increasing online competition and rising costs.
It saw a spike in sales following Storm Desmond in 2015, but has also had to absorb extra costs generated by the new minimum wage, and pensions auto-enrolment.
And, while the firm tries to source what products it can from the UK, the fall in the exchange rate following the Brexit vote has also had an impact, adding between 20 and 25 per cent the cost of imported raw materials.
Mr Spreadbury said: “I suppose councils need to look more at what support they can offer to businesses, otherwise the traditional High Street could be facing a dismal future, and that would be a real shame.
“For me, the number one thing they could do is make parking easier.
“There should be a regeneration of town [and city] centres, and they shouldn't be producing any more out-of-town retail parks. They need to invest more in attracting people to the centre.
“They shouldn't allow buildings to lay empty and derelict for years.”
Mrs Meek defended Carlisle, insisting it is still a city on the up.
"You've got to remember that retail is changing," she said. "There is more online.
"Where a retailer would have wanted quite a large stores in the past, now they don't necessarily need that large footprint."
When it comes to supporting existing city centre retailers and long-standing Carlisle firms, Mrs Meek said the council's role was to create the right environment.
"That could range from policies in the Local Plan that protect the city centre from out of town shopping, to making sure there are the right developments available to attract retailers," she said.
"We know there are a number of national retailers interested in Carlisle but they will only come for the right site, in the right place with the right size of building.
"We have a small city but in terms of our retail catchment [of 500,000], it's very extensive."
She added that compared to northern cities of a similar size, Carlisle is bucking the trend, in terms of vacancy rates.
Primark had a long interest in coming to the city, but were only prepared to move in when the right site came along.
Today marks the first anniversary of the budget clothing store's arrival and David Jackson, The Lanes Shopping Centre commercial director, said its magnetic affect remains just as strong.
Despite a squeeze on people's pockets and a poor summer weather-wise, footfall at the Lanes Shopping Centre is up.
Mr Jackson said there is no question that retail has been tough this year due to uncertainty following the General Election and Brexit, as well as a price inflation.
Against that background, he said the majority of retailers have been doing okay, with one or two making big inroads against the previous year.
"What's helped us has been the arrival of Primark," he said.
"As far as I'm concerned, Carlisle has got a good retail future ahead of it and that remains to be seen to follow on from Primark last year."
Footfall for September was up 13 per cent on last year, and between January and September footfall is up by 8.5 per cent compared to 2016.
Mr Jackson said what is changing is that people are spending more on experiential treats - buying into experiences.
Work is set to get underway on Monday to convert the former Ed's Diner into Carlisle's latest Costa cafe.
There are two empty units at The Lanes - the former homes of Tony and Guy and JJB - which Mr Jackson said there is still pending redevelopment interest in.
"You have to work a bit harder to get a retailer over the line for Carlisle," he said.
"Most of the retailers are based much further south from here, so sometimes the issues is getting them here in the first place.
"Once they are here the selling job is a lot easier."
It was hoped 2017 would see an expansion for Next into a bigger unit. The retailer had been considering a move to bring its men's, women's and childrenswear stores under one roof.
This would mean the closure of its English Street branch but would not affect its Home store at Kingstown.
A spokeswoman for Next said: "We are still trying to find a better location for our city centre stores which are currently split across two sites.
"We continue to work with The Lanes to find the best solution and to give Next customers the best store we possibly can."
Victoria Viaduct forms part of the council's wider regeneration strategy which includes the Citadel and the train station area.
Mrs Meek said: "It's about how can we put together a proposal and help facilitate the redevelopment of that area.
"It all takes time. Development doesn't happen overnight but there is an issue with Central Plaza with regards to the fact that it's held by the Crown."
She said her authority is working to release the building from the Crown it in order to facilitate the redevelopment.
While there has interest in that area the council still needs to get a developer on board.
Other factors, which would need to be addressed, include the fact that the building is listed and sits on an ancient monument as well as accessing funding.