By Prof Simon Quin
Last week in The Netherlands, some 250 place management practitioners and policy makers from across Europe gathered to discuss the future of retail in medium size city centres. In a snap survey of the audience, over half said the retail sector in their town was “troublesome” whilst just 12% described it as “booming”. It is in The Netherlands, however, that some interesting responses are happening.
The event heard from Mona Keijzer, State Secretary of Economic Affairs in The Netherlands, who noted that they have a national retail strategy, the only country in the EU that does so. It also heard from Henk Brink, from the province of Drenthe on how the province is allocating one third of funding to match spending by local authorities and private sector investment to revitalise town and city centres.
Hoogeveen, where the conference took place, is one of the places benefitting from this joint funding approach. Some €39 million is currently being invested in Hoogeveen centre. The city has been working on revitalisation since 2006 when city centre management was established and Hoogeveen became the first Business Improvement District in The Netherlands in 2009. From 2011 to 2013 it was recognised as the best medium sized inner city in the country, but despite this unemployment rose and retail vacancy reached 12% in 2016. The local authority and city centre management foundation therefore led on a new vision and strategy for the city which was published in June 2017.
This new strategy will see the city centre become more compact, with considerable physical restructuring. This includes not only redevelopment of a dated shopping centre, but grants being available for existing retailers to relocate, work on the potential for retail recruitment to complement the existing offer, physical upgrading to create new public space around the theatre, redevelopment of a central former car park to create underground parking with new apartments above, and the creation of a new central park with housing adjacent.
The strategy also looks at work to support retailers through business training and support, grants for shop improvements, and an extended marketing and events programme. Retailers are themselves thinking of how best to respond to change. One example is de Jongens (http://www.dejongenshoogeveen.nl/), a menswear shop where customers get coffee and specially brewed beer. The owners have deliberately sought to change the nature of shopping to create a meeting point where guys will hang around and also buy some clothes. It seems popular.
To ensure that initiatives are evidence-based, the new strategy includes extensive provision for data gathering and monitoring, looking at footfall, parking usage, vacancy, sales, and they have developed a local ‘vitality formula’ to monitor change.
Collaboration and ‘co-production’ are a key part of the approach in Hoogeveen, ensuring engagement from some 400 businesses working alongside the city.
We are delighted that the Institute’s work on town centre classifications and the need for places to undertake repositioning and reinventing as part of the strategy development process was of help to Hoogeveen. Hoogeveen is one of 10 towns that participated in the Urbact RetaiLink project and its final report notes that “The joint reflections on the type of town centre according to footfall analysis as well as the [Institute’s] factors influencing its vitality and viability were critical for the planning team of Hoogeveen to develop its new strategy.” You can read case studies from other towns and access the overall outcomes from the project at http://urbact.eu/sites/default/files/media/final-report-per-web.pdf.