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Major bid to pump new life into Blackburn town centre
Blackburn Council leader Kate Hollern is leading the initiative to bring new life into the town centre
AN ambitious strategy to kick-start Blackburn town centre’s economic fortunes is unveiled today.
The 12-point ‘blueprint’ includes free weekday afternoon car parking, moves to revamp the town’s nightlife and scrapping business rates for new independent shops.
Borough leader Kate Hollern said the move was desperately needed.
She said: “The town centre is a shadow of its former self. This is a call to action.
“The council will lose cash in the short term, but this is investing in the long-term future prosperity of Blackburn.”
The strategy would see free parking on council car parks after 3pm on weekdays and a major revamp of the traffic system with the completion of the ring road to encourage people to drive into the town to shop, eat, drink and go out for the evening.
Bars are set to get rate reductions to put on weekly live acts and student nights as part of a bid to bring back a night time ‘buzz’ to the town.
And a major programme of events at King George’s Hall for top music acts with an all-age appeal is planned as well as monthly Club Tropicana and Utopia nightclub-style reunions with late licences.
The council will open Blakey’s Bar to the public on Friday and Saturday nights, despite risking a monthly £1,600 loss if trade does not pick up.
This comes on top of hopes to attract up to five restaurants to the town as part of the £28 million Cathedral Quarter development.
The strategy aims to attract new independent shops and creative industries to the town centre through a targeted business rate relief of up to 100 per cent for empty retail premises, as well as rent reductions on vacant council-owned properties.
New figures show 20 per cent of shops (96 retail units) in the centre are vacant, rising to 27 per cent in the Sudell Cross/Northgate area.
A programme of monthly town centre events with four major festivals a year will complement the Christmas lights, as well as Sunday opening of the Central Library and promotion of the museum and its collections.
Borough deputy chief executive Andrew Lightfoot said he had been working on the blueprint for more than three years and had spent six months putting together the 12 point plan and getting it approved by the council's political leadership.
He said it would continue reviving Blackburn town centre after the current phase of development, including the new £5 million bus station and Cathedral Quarter, are completed in 2016.
Mr Lightfoot said: “We had to look at new ways of thinking. More of the same was not an option.”
Blackburn-born designer Wayne Hemingway, who will take a key role in the drive to keep talented young towns people and college students to make their careers in the borough, said: “We need a vibrant living town centre where the ‘making’ tradition of Blackburn is a positive to inspire a new generation.’ The programme has been given a warm welcome by business people and politicians.
Blackburn with Darwen Chamber of Trade President Tony Duckworth said: “This is fantastic, especially the extension of free parking. Finally the council are listening to traders.”
Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: “The council has already done a lot to regenerate the town centre but it cannot stop there. This is a plan to take the redevelopment of Blackburn into the future.”
Coffee Exchange boss Mark Smith, on the steering committee of the Business Improvement District initiative, said: “This sounds good - a plan for the future of Blackburn town centre.”
Borough Tory group leader Mike Lee said: “I welcome the extension of free parking and the business rate initiatives but the council must concentrate and new creative business and independent retails. There is a lot to welcome here.”
East Lancs Chamber of Commerce chief executive Mike Damms said: “Blackburn town centre needs some tender loving care. This plan suggest it will get it.”
Coun Hollern said: “This is aimed at revitalising the town centre, increasing footfall, encouraging new visitors and shoppers, improving the local economy, creation of new jobs, supporting young people. I can’t accept town centre shops staying empty when young people want to start businesses in them.”
Also under the plans police and council officers will use existing legal powers to crackdown on street drinking and anti-social behaviour along with a new emphasis a clean and green central area with flower beds blooming in season.
A US-style ‘Fab Lab’, possibly in the former Bentley’s building, offering the latest technology free to businesses and entrepreneurs to boost creative industries, could also be created.
The Key initiatives
1. A discount on business rates for a 12-month trial period of up to 100 per cent for a year for new or expanding creative businesses or independent shops which occupy an empty retail unit from April next year.
2. A scheme offering creative industries a 50 per cent or more rent discount on the council-owned vacant units aimed at providing talented graduates and start-up entrepreneurs with town centre studio/incubator space to produce and sell work from the end of this year.
3. Hosting a ‘Fab Lab’ for Lancashire in Blackburn providing cutting edge IT and other technology to local firms, colleges, creative professionals and resident artists by 2015.
4. A vibrant annual town centre cultural events programme including four major festivals each year, a series of monthly one-off ‘events’/ attractions in public areas, themed street markets and arts events starting next year.
5. Kick-starting the night time economy by opening Blakey’s to casual customers on Friday and Saturday nights, holding monthly Club Tropicana or Utopia reunions in King George’s Hall, and cash incentives for town centre licensees committed to staging regular live acts and joining in ‘Student Thursdays’ and ‘Live Music Fridays’ from next year.
6. An immediate zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour including enforcing the street drinking ban, an increased town centre police presence and enforcing the law on hostels near the central area and on Shisha Cafés to create a safer atmosphere for visitors.
7. Making the most of key town centre assets including King George’s Hall, Blakeys, the Central Library and Blackburn Museum.
8. Free parking after 3pm, Monday to Friday, from this month on all council car parks, as well as free parking on Saturdays and Sundays.
9. Making the town centre cleaner and greener with enhanced street cleansing, and high quality flower planting schemes throughout the year starting this autumn.
10. A £3 million Townscape Heritage Initiative bid for National Lottery cash for Northgate (the oldest area in Blackburn and the Roman road between Ribchester and Manchester) and the existing conservation area including King George’s Hall, the Cotton Exchange, courts, former Police Station, Town Hall, the college's Victoria building. and Blakey Moor.
11. Backing the campaign for town centre traders to vote ’yes’ to Business Improvement District proposal.
12. Effectively marketing the town centre as ‘the place to come’ under the slogan ‘Blackburn is Open to Business’ using social media such as Facebook and Twitter and capitalising on local celebrities such as designer Wayne Hemingway, film-maker Michael Winterbottom and the late opera star Kathleen Ferrier.
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