Rotherham’s Renaissance Man

Chris Hamby, the businessman single-handledy restoring Rotherham's High Street
Chris Hamby, the businessman single-handledy restoring Rotherham's High Street
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Rotherham’s Renaissance Man is gazing out of his first floor office window and his intensely blue eyes burn bright with pride. The scene he surveys is of his making.

Rotherham’s Renaissance Man is gazing out of his first floor office window and his intensely blue eyes burn bright with pride. The scene he surveys is of his making.

The town’s historic high street is getting prettier - and busier - week on week.

It is becoming what it always should have been; a thriving modern retail community in buildings that hark back through centuries of the town’s illustrious past.

“I used to look down this street and think it needed getting hold of by the scruff of the neck. It was unloved; loads of properties were boarded up. Some had been set on fire and were just charred shells filled with rubbish and stinking of urine.”

Chris had moved his shoe shop there from the town’s Corporation Street in 2002. He had bought the beautiful Mason’s building, a Georgian jeweller’s and home to the Mason family for generations, for £175,000. But he realised it stood at the top of a road that was rapidly going nowhere.

Its demise from thriving retail quarter in a conservation area to embarrassing eyesore - “the image everyone saw every time the town hit the headlines was always of boarded-up High Street” - came first from the opening of Parkgate Retail World, then the Meadowhall complex.

“Everyone went to the malls. Town centres from Detroit to Doncaster became donuts with nothing in the middle,” says the Barnsley born and bred businessman who owns a string of three Hamby’s shoe shops with his ex-wife.

“Meadowhall is great. And it’s run by some pretty smart people. Town centres can’t compete. They don’t charge for parking because they understand the human psyche. People go on cruises and all they talk about when they get back is the chocolates that were on the pillow every night. ”

At that point, Hamby could have done what everyone else did; beat a hasty retreat from the town centre. He decided instead to become its saviour.

The council and the Chamber of Commerce now talk with pride of the town’s recovery. Rotherham’s Renaissance is well underway - and in addition to the public bodies, the £677,000 of Heritage Lottery Funding, the £3m Townscape Heritage Initiative giving restoration grants to property owners and long term lease holders, to Queen of Shops Mary Portas even, one man has done more than his bit.

Hamby bought six nigh-on derelict buildings and is in the process of transforming them into quaint premises. Three are already open, the rest will be by Christmas.

.Numbers 17, 19, 21, 25-27 and 29 on High Street, and the stunning Gothic George Wright building at the back which had been hidden from view, cost him £250,000. He’s gone through three years of stress and hard graft. He helped knock down walls, fill skips with years of rotted rubbish

The big question is: why? “I’ve always traded in town centres. I love them,” he replies. “And if I hadn’t done it, what would have happened?”

Rotherham Council had itself planned to buy the properties from a developer who had owned them for years, but had gone bust. However Central Government said there were no funds available, so in 2010 up went some arty hoardings to mask the grim reality. “When I saw them I realised nothing was going to happen and decided to buy them myself,” Chris explains.

It sounds easy, but he tried for a year to find a bank to loan him £700,000 to buy and renovate the buildings.

“I can understand why they said no; the street looked like Beirut. There was only Hamby’s at the top, a hairdresser’s a newsagents’s and Primark.

“Then in 2011 I managed to get a loan from the council. I thought: thank God for them. They probably thought thank god for me, one man wanting to take on six shops. They could not have been better with me.”

A £750,000 long term capital finance loan from Rotherham Council secured £677,000 of Heritage Lottery Funding for additional work. Last December, an additional loan of £140,000 was granted to refurbish what was originally the 15th century Three Cranes pub and 29-29a High Street. And now the council’s cabinet has approved a further £300,000 loan and £190,000 grant, to enable all the buildings to be finished in time for Christmas.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he says, in case anyone thinks he’s using up ratepayers’ cash. “I pay the council interest on the loans,and rates, the town is getting a High Street to be proud of again and I get rent from the shops.”

A period style has been adhered to and as the renaissance began, other shops began to open. “It’s infectious. By Christmas, every property on this street, apart from the boarded up Chinese restaurant, will be let,” he beams.

I don’t think there’s another High Street in the country that can say that. We’ve got hobby shops - people will always spend on their hobbies. We’ve got a shoe shop, clothes shops, a hairdresser’s, a cafe and a deli coffee shop - businesses people go to rather than trade online with. I”

Hamby, now 50, admits it has been the hardest three years of his life, though. And few know that just three years before he set out on his mission, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the kidney and given just six months to live.

Surgery saved him - and he has since made the most of the life he didn’t think he had, setting up a thriving charity, the Hamby Foundation, for street children in Romania, marrying Gabriella, the Romanian woman he fell in love with as a result of it, and having two children.

Maybe it’s also why he was willing to go from shopkeeper to property developer, and take on what no one else dared.

“I feel blessed I was given the opportunity to do this,” he says, gazing out of that window at the pretty pedestrianised street below. “And that so many people have come onboard. When one person starts something, others join in.

“I’d like to see people get government backing, cut out the banks and do this in their town.

“Independent businesses are what created our towns. Get them back and town centres will be transformed.”

Praise for Chris:

Strategic Director for Environment and Development Services, Karl Battersby, said: “Chris came to us at a time when our townscape heritage scheme in Rotherham was at a critical point. Several key buildings were not being taken forward and we as a council were at a crossroads.

“Chris had faith in what we were trying to achieve with the town centre and, more importantly, he had faith, and pride, in Rotherham.

“His incredible determination, combined with our loan and support, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, have ensured that the High Street scheme can be completed and he should be rightly proud of what he has achieved. His spirit and determination is an inspiration to us all.”