Business leaders across Rotherham have united in a bid to rebuild ‘brand Rotherham’ in the wake of the town’s damaging child abuse scandal.
The town’s chamber of commerce, Rotherham Council’s business leader and traders themselves are determined to bolster the town’s image and stress that Rotherham ‘is still open for business’.
It follows the launch of the ‘Rotherham United’ campaign in October, set up in a bid to rebuild the town’s shattered reputation.
During the first meeting to discuss Professor Alexis Jay’s report – which revealed 1,400 children had been victims of sexual exploitation in the town over 16 years – Coun Dominic Beck, Rotherham Council’s cabinet member for business, said one business had been put off coming to the town after the scandal broke.
However, four months on, the picture is looking more positive for the town’s business prospects.
Coun Beck said: “The company I referred to in the meeting a couple of months ago – I went to see them and reassured them we are going to sort this and we are keen to stress Rotherham is open for business.
“I think, over the last few months, ‘Brand Rotherham’ has probably been damaged, but there are things we have actively done. We introduced free parking in the town centre a month early – in mid-October instead of mid-November. We have set up a town centre task force which meets with traders on a weekly basis.
“So we are trying to do as much as we can to support retailers in the town.”
He said there are more firms looking to invest in Rotherham, including a South Korean company which would be a ‘quite big’ investment.
Coun Beck said: “I have been talking to businesses that want to invest here, including meetings with a big South Korean company.
“We are still very much talking to them, and it’s quite a big level of investment if we can secure that for Rotherham.
“Rotherham is resilient, and I don’t know any business or haven’t come across any business which is thinking of moving or has reconsidered moving here as a result of the Jay report.”
Trader Tony Chapman, who owns Whistle Stop Sweet Shop on High Street, said the impact of right-wing protest groups marching through the town in the wake of Prof Jay’s report had not helped businesses.
He said: “Protests from the likes of the EDL have cost Rotherham’s economy millions of pounds and that’s not taking into account things like the policing costs.
“If they want to do something positive, they should fundraise. They should try to integrate the community. But they don’t want to do that. That would take some effort and it doesn’t involve lager. It’s frustrating. They just want to divide communities and I think it is.
“Apparently there have been issues with Asian youths hanging around in gangs. They only do that because it’s the only way they feel safe.
“I can understand it from their point of view. This is what happens when we divide communities. It makes people feel uneasy about everybody.
“Rotherham is a great place to come and shop, with lots of independents. The people of Rotherham are sorry about what’s gone on, but life goes on.
“Some traders have tried to put together some solutions to the problem. We just have to keep trying and hope people will continue to come here and shop.”
Andrew Denniff, Barnsley and Rotherham Chamber of Commerce chief executive, said it is ‘difficult to quantify’ how much protests have cost traders.
He said: “There are some figures I have heard which say footfall is down 40 per cent when these marches happen. It’s not just the cost to businesses, but the cost of policing too, a cost which is ultimately borne by the ratepayers across South Yorkshire.
“However, I’m not aware of any businesses which have shut down or considered moving because of the CSE.
“When the news first broke, there were a couple of businesses looking to come into Rotherham who had some concerns.
“We allayed their fears and those two businesses still intend to do what they were going to do.
“People will focus on the sound business reasons. If there is a sound reason to invest in Rotherham, people will continue do that.
“It has not been an easy few months for Rotherham.
“In terms of reputational damage, there’s a great deal of work to be done, which could take months or even years to restore the pride in Rotherham.
“It’s about looking forward now. We can’t just dismiss what happened, but from an economic perspective – and that is the perspective we have to look from as the chamber – it’s about looking forward.
“We have to be pragmatic about it, but Rotherham is still open for business and always has been, and is a good place to come and do business.
“There is no magic wand. It’s about working hard to come up with solutions.”