by Prof Simon Quin
Roeselare in West Flanders, Belgium, is a small city that is beginning to change rapidly. With a population of some 60,000, a catchment of around 200,000, and a reputation as a retail destination, Roeselare is typical of many locations across Europe that are having to address disruptive change in retail. In 2007, they adopted a plan that sought to achieve a balance between town centre and edge of centre retailing. A centre management team was set up in 2009 but it wasn’t until 2015 that the real challenges of retail change were addressed. Although retail vacancy remained moderate, at some 8.4% of the 400 units in the centre, there was a realisation that more radical things had to be done to maintain a sustainable retail offer.
A new city centre plan was adopted in 2015 at a large gathering of stakeholders. Having already been involved in its development, political and business leaders signed the new plan in public and, perhaps most importantly, significant finance was allocated to make change happen immediately. The plan saw Roeselare as a ‘trendsetting and leading retail city’ and as ‘the first smart shopping city of Flanders’. It aimed to contribute to revenue growth for the city’s retailers and other businesses and contained seven ambitions which it said would be addressed through an integrated approach in dialogue with the various partners.
The first ambition is the creation of the finest open air shopping mall. Extensive public realm works started late in 2015 and are set to continue in 2017. These include the removal of car parking, new street surfaces, new green areas and trees, plans for side street improvements and better links to the new library or knowledge centre at the heart of the town. A major green square with space for recreation will replace car parking in 2017. Support facilities for shoppers are being introduced, including a new sponsored childcare facility, and Christmas lights have been upgraded and extended.
The second ambition is about supporting businesses and an active retail recruitment initiative has seen 26 new shops in 2016, with financial incentives being offered. Pop-ups are also being encouraged through the equivalent of a dating website that connects owners and potential occupiers (https://www.estate-eleven.be/). Empty shop units will be required to be decorated from next year to animate street frontages.
The third ambition is smarter shopping and Roeselare became the first town in Flanders to develop a city app that offers incentives to shoppers. It now has almost 10,000 users. Free wi-fi is offered throughout the centre, though some login issues are to be addressed. A further initiative with the Belgian postal service has just been started which enables an online local ordering and delivery system that connects central retailers with customers.
New events have been initiated to offer a city of experience whilst work is underway to improve access through online data about parking availability, new vehicle and pedestrian signing and a revision of parking and mobility policies. 30 minutes free parking has been introduced in some streets, controlled by sensors. Extensive work to develop partnerships and networks is another ambition, particularly to link businesses in the town and to support trade associations.
A recent visit to Roeselare led by Professor Kim Cassidy and Bill Grimsey of the National Retail Research Knowledge Exchange Centre and including retail researchers, UK government officials, trade associations and the Institute of Place Management, heard and saw much about what Roeselare was doing, and had the chance to meet many stakeholders. Bill Grimsey had previously attended the city plan launch, as his book, The Grimsey Review, which looked at how high streets should respond to retail change, had influenced its development. Much of what has been done or is planned very specifically relates to the 25 priority factors to ensure town centre vitality and viability that the Institute had identified in the High Street UK 2020 research, and particularly notable was the clear leadership and vision that was evident from Mayor Kris Declercq and economic development officer Vanessa Dehullu, who organised and hosted the visit.
It is still relatively early in the implementation of the 2015 plan to say with certainty that Roeselare will be a future case study for others to learn from, though it was good to see that regular meetings are held between the various towns in West Flanders to exchange ideas and updates on progress. What is evident now, however, is that a very positive start has been made. Investment has been focused on initiatives that are making a visible difference on the ground, there is a clear momentum for change, a real desire to work together for the good of the town has been inculcated, the vision and strategy allows for opportunities to be seized and new initiatives piloted that might otherwise have gone to some other location, and they are doing an excellent job of communicating that Roeselare is where change happens. There have been lessons along the way, and not everything has worked as well as expected (Sunday trading for example) but overall the town is moving forward and this augurs well.