Interview: New Harrogate BID manager on how to solve town centre's future and why it's vital to 'bring everyone together'
Harrogate BID’s new manager has talked to the Harrogate Advertiser about his faith that the town centre can still find a prosperous future - and he stands ready to work with all sides of the business community to help make it happen.
Part of Matthew Chapman’s confidence as he prepares to take up his new role on May 1 comes from the existing blueprint for supporting Harrogate’s retail sector already formulated by Harrogate BID in its official Business Plan.
He also believes strongly in the town's independent sector which is one of its most important assets, he told the Harrogate Advertiser.
But the new Harrogate BID manager says rates and rents have to be looked at to create a more level playing field in retail.
And Mr Chapman told this newspaper he is also committed to “bringing everyone together for the right reasons” when he becomes the first permanent manager of the town’s business improvement group for 18 months.
It's an approach based on what he has learned from personal experience.
Before accepting his new role in Harrogate, Mr Chapman served as Leeds BID operations manager in 2016 and, also, Huddersfield’s BID manager.
He said: “I’m really looking forward to starting full time in just over a weeks’ time.
“I’ve been a regular visitor to Harrogate since I was a boy and I know what a special place it is.
“I know how positive a BID can be when it’s going in the right direction.
“I’m absolutely confident in Harrogate’s Business Plan but, more than anything, BID is here to be approachable and transparent.”
After weathering a troubled opening 12 months or so which hit a low point in the early months of Covid last year when four board members walked out, Harrogate BID has been busy introducing a series of successful new ideas which appear to have steadied the ship.
Mr Chapman clearly takes seriously the responsibility of living up to the expectations of the hundreds of Harrogate firms who pay a levy to fund BID’s projects to improve business prospects and boost footfall in the town centre to the tune of more than £500,00 each year.
He said: “As levy payers, it’s right they need to see a return on their investment in BID.
“Businesses need BIDs to be do-ers, not just talkers. But it isn’t going to be a case of one group leading the way to recovery when the pandemic is over.
“Building teams and working with other groups is the way to make real improvements.”
Mr Chapman says he is aware of the significant complications and challenges of reviving Harrogate town centre.
Although 82% of the Harrogate businesses who voted in October 2018 were in favour of Harrogate joining the 300+ other towns in the UK to have a BID, the formation only a few months later of the Independent Harrogate pressure group illustrated how quickly frustration can develop among some levy paying businesses to see more action.
In an era of growing online competition and the decline of national retail giants, a fierce debate over possible radical changes for the layout of Harrogate town centre such as the Gateway project - pushed by the local authorities with millions in Government money - has broken out in recent weeks with major disagreements on how to create a new version of the town centre in a way which will meet business needs and local environmental commitments on reducing carbon emissions.
Mr Chapman believes BID is equipped to avoid the pitfalls sometimes seen in other towns. But, he adds, it’s not his job to wade into the politics of it all.
He said: “Where BIDs do the right thing, there is still a real appetite to support them.
“One of the positive things that has come out in the last year is that out of the 50 BIDs which went back out to ballot, only two didn’t win the vote and had to fold.
“Speaking personally, I don’t think there is a single golden answer to making things better in Harrogate town centre, it will happen through collaboration.
“But I’m not here to air my views and opinions on this and that. My role and BID’s role is to give a voice to the hundreds of Harrogate businesses which pay in to BID.”
Like many of the other 300-plus BID managers, Mr Chapman believes that to improve the overall playing field for businesses in town centres and reduce the threat of empty units, the problem of the high cost of rates and rents has to be tackled.
Mr Chapman said: "BIDs across the country have been lobbying for bricks and mortar businesses to level up with online shopping which has been enjoying an advantage over them.
"Part of that is the rates and rents which the high street has to pay which affects independents, in particular.
"Lots of businesses want to take the plunge and open in the town centre. But it is quite a daring thing to take over an empty unit right now. It's too big of a jump and a financial risk.
"It would be good to use some empty shops at a lower cost for start-ups in Harrogate to give them a foot on the ladder. Hopefully, Harrogate BID can help with this."
Under its chair Sara Ferguson and interim manager Simon Kent, Harrogate BID has won praise for initiatives such as Harrogate Gift Card, supporting free bus services into town and promoting individual streets’ retail offer.
There have even been early steps to bring empty shop units in the town centre back into life.
When Matthew Chapman moves into BID’s new office on Victoria Shopping Centre at the beginning of May, he is determined to keep on bringing in practical measures to help traders, whether that’s more street cleaning, better cleaning, easier parking or, as is planned shortly, introducing a new Town Centre app to combine cut-price offers with interactive trails.
Mr Chapman said: "Harrogate is in a superb place to move forward when the end of Covid lockdown comes. It has brilliant foundations to build upon.
“I’m confident BID can play a big part but only if it works with the town’s businesses. My message is we are listening and happy to be contacted by anyone.
“Moving our office to Victoria Shopping Centre right in Harrogate's retail heart is a visible sign that Harrogate BID will be living and breathing local business."
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