It may have suffered through recession and internet shopping - but Doncaster town centre may have something to smile about.
With redevelopment schemes in progress, the town has just seen a rise in its shop occupancy rate, which has delighted officials. But experts are now looking to change the focus to bring in more culture to the town centre rather than relying on retail in a changing world.
In the first part of our latest Doncaster Free Press round table disussion, we gathered a panel together to discuss the town centre. With the Free Press' David Kessen chairing, Scott Cardwell (Doncaster Council assistant director of development), Margaret Herbert (Friends of the Mansion House), Fiona Keane (managing director, Keane Creative), Dan Fell (chief executive, Doncaster Chamber), and Insp Lynne Lancaster (South Yorkshire Police) looked at how we can improve the town centre.
What needs to be done to get more visitors into Doncaster town centre?
SC: "If you look at the visitor statistics for Doncaster, they're very surprising, and many of those are attributable to Doncaster town centre. We regularly outperform areas such as Bath, Cambridge, Stratford upon Avon, and if you look at the statistics there are over 13 million day trippers. Clearly the Yorkshire Wildlife Park will play a part in that, and also the racecourse, so a lot of people. A lot of people are coming into the town centre, primarily for retail. We have decent foundations. One of the challenges is starting to flip that into overnight stays, and to do that I think we need to change the town centre offering. Town centres across the country are changing. Retail is not the sort of pull it has been in the past, and we're doing a lot of work in the council to look at diversifying the offer. This is bringing in more cultural offerings, more creative engagement opportunities, It's not extending out the core, but compacting it and driving up that quality offer. We want people to come to Doncaster and enjoy being in the town centre, not just go to the shops to pick something up.
"Earlier this year we released a town centre masterplan, which is a very inclusive plan for the town centre in terms of physical development. We are on numerous sites in the town centre delivering it.
"Coupled with that, as a strategic partnership, we have the Doncaster Growing Together programme, which has a strand around the town centre, which takes the frame that the urban centre masterplan gives us, and IS bringing that frame to life through initiatives to increase events, to improve the street scene, and also tackle some of the issues in the town centre. We feel we're in a strong position where we have physical plans, and a plan that talks about the uses and drives up the animation in the town centre. We want people to come to Doncaster not just for shopping or a night out on Silver Street., but with a bigger cultural offer and a more creative feel.
MH: "It annoys me that there are a lot of people who knock Doncaster who do not see other towns, where they have exactly the same problems, only worse. There are people who knock Doncaster who have not seen what it's like in other places. I think the plan for the front of the railway station is brilliant and has needed to be done for a long time. We're trying to negotiate something to do with the Grand Theatre, because it is a lovely building and there are lots of opportunities there.It's not going to knock Cast - we're talking about two completely different venues offering cultural things in Doncaster which is something we need.
"I don't walk very well and I don't drive so I get stuck with buses and I have to carry my shopping from the market, up Baxtergate, through the Frenchgate Centre, up in the lift, down in the stairs, and I do think that we need to have some sort of minibus service that serves the market."
FK: "The bus service is awkward, that you've got to go into town to get out of town."
MH: "And there are no buses after 6pm from some areas. Mine is very 40 minutes, so I often have to get a friend to pick me up or get a taxi."
SC: "That's something that would have to be taken up with South Yorkshire Passenger Transport."
DF: "I wouldn't want the conversation to be about fixing Doncaster town centre because it has a lot of assets. There are lots of positive things to build on. It is about continuous improvement. There has been a lot of positive change in Doncaster over the last decade and I think the urban core has been a little bit left behind. That's been recognised and there's a lot of energy being put into the town centre. There is need to move beyond the Mary Portas kind of halcyon days of restoring the high street. That's not going to happen because the world has changed, and I think it's about building ever more experiences into the town centre where you can interact and spend time. You can have some retail, with some leisure in there, some culture in there, having residential and commercial businesses in the town centre.
"I've been campaigning for three years to have a technical college in the town centre. It is about that mixed use to create a vibrancy that looks and feels like a city. We're getting there."
FK: "I think sometimes there is an issue that people don't know all the things that are going on."
LL:"I think there has been a lot of negative on social media about the town centre on, about things like Spice. Doncaster has not nowhere near the same problem as some cities. People don't always know what we're doing behind the scenes."
MH: "We have people who tell us they didn't know they could go inside the Mansion House."
SC: "Sometimes its about recognising our assets. The Mansion House has a growing number of events like weddings. We did a Steampunk event there, and they came back, bigger and better. We need to nurture our assets and work with other organisations."
DF: "Over the last 10 years we've had a relentless approach to driving education and skills. There is more work to do on that, but there is momentum on that now. We can't leave skills alone, but we can think 'what's next' for the borough and for me work around culture and creative industries is at the front of the queue, as it is something that can make Doncaster a bit funkier, a bit more vibrant, and create some energy that tips into civic pride."
SC: "At the town centre retail frontage we have seen an improvement in relation to retail properties occupied in the town centre. At the minute we're 89.4 per cent occupancy levels, and we work at a target of 89, so it's the first time we seen and increase at this time of year so we're tracking it. Last quarter it was 98.1, it's now gone up to 89.4. With Christmas season coming quarter four will probably go event higher. It's good to see an upward trend and think it will stand positive against other towns.
"Looking at what's in the pipeline, we've potentially the University Technical College. Cast Theatre has been a game changer, and we've got the library coming in 2020, and there's going to be a cinema, with work looking to start in April. Work has started on the Wool market to be completed next October 2018. On top of that we've got Azuma trains due that will do London to Doncaster 75 minutes . You're going to see as a hotspot for locations, and for the private rented sector.
* See next week's Free Press for the second half of the discussion.