The tide is turning for Preston city centre after years of losing out to retail parks and online shopping.
That’s the view of business leader Mark Whittle who insists the death of the Great British high street has been greatly exaggerated here in Central Lancashire.
“There isn’t a town or city in the country that doesn’t have vacant units,” said the manager of the city’s Business Improvement District (BID).
“But Preston is holding its own and slowly the tide is turning.”
The message is echoed by Coun Drew Gale who represents the city centre at the Town Hall.
“It’s all very positive for Preston,” he said. “I’m absolutely amazed how it has changed. It’s all about evolution and diversification and that’s exactly what our city centre businesses are doing.”
Even though Preston has lost some big players like BHS and Toys R Us, BID, which represents more than 800 businesses in the city, is reassuringly positive.
Things are looking up, says Mark, because of the city’s willingness to change, to remodel itself to meet the needs of today’s shoppers.
“In terms of the city centre, things are looking positive,” he said. “Of course there is a natural generational shift in terms of stores, purely based on society changes.
“What people want to purchase these days has dramatically changed over decades. There are the staples, but consumer demand has changed and so has the look and the feel of the city’s retail landscape.
“Leisure is playing an increasingly big part in people’s shopping habits - a coffee shop, a bit of lunch etc. So it is important that the retail and leisure offer in any city works in partnership to provide a ‘destination’ proposition.
“Preston enjoys an abundance of independent and specialist shops. These businesses need to be embraced and supported in order for them to survive.”
Coun Gale agreed, saying: “There has been massive investment in Preston city centre and people are being attracted in. Hopefully our new market hall will entice even more people.
“We are showing that city centres are not dead – in fact quite the opposite. Vacancy rates are down and anyone who criticises should look at where we were 15 years ago and where we are now.
“It’s fantastic and it’s all getting better.”
‘Friargate’s still buzzing, but it’s a different type of high street with a different buzz’
Mike Halewood’s family have sold books in Friargate for more than 150 years.
A few doors up, business has been blooming for florist Margaret Mason since 1961.
And across the road the Sun Hotel has been quenching thirsts for the last two centuries.
If the Great British high street was dying on its footfall, these three businesses would surely know.
“It’s still buzzing,” said Margaret, at 81 the city centre’s longest-serving retailer. “But it’s a different type of high street now, with a different kind of buzz.”
Historic Friargate has had to adapt to survive the challenges thrown at it by the success of out of town retail parks and an explosion in online shopping.
It has been more evolution than revolution, a gradual transformation driven by the success of its neighbour at the end of the street – the university.
Gone are the butchers and the bakers, the cobblers and the post office, which all flourished there in the sixties and seventies.
In their place are takeaways, barbershops, phone stores, mini-markets, tattoo and piercing parlours, all new businesses feeding off the thousands of students who now frequent Friargate by day and night.
“When I first moved in there was a great feeling of community down here,” said Margaret. “And it’s still a great community.
“I’ve seen shops come and go over the last 50-odd years and I honestly believe we’re on the up again.”
Take a stroll down Friargate, from the Adelphi roundabout – soon to become University Square – to Ringway and you come across only three empty shops.
Preston’s oldest curry house, the Spice of Bengal, is also awaiting a buyer. And a shop which was a pub more than a century ago is in the midst of a lengthy conversion into a gin bar.
New retail units are expecting tenants soon in student blocks at the Tramshed and Friargate Court.
But everywhere else there is hustle and bustle, with no fewer than 25 takeaways and restaurants all competing for appetites in this one stretch of street.
There are six pubs and seven hairdressers. And the rest are an eclectic mix of businesses including a Chinese herbal medicine store, a comic seller, a laptop repair centre and a sex shop.
“I’ve worked in Friargate since I left school and it’s still thriving,” said bookseller Mike, who is the fifth generation owner of the two Halewood shops at numbers 37 and 68.
“Our family started the business in 1867 and we’ve always been on Friargate. It’s still going well. But I think the biggest change we’ve seen in the last 20 years is that the street is now as busy at night as it is during the day.”
Friargate has been one of the premier streets in Preston since medieval times. It had a Franciscan monastery from 1221 to 1539 where an order of Grey Friars lived, worked and worshipped.
It was the site of the town’s first Catholic church and the birthplace of suffragette Teresa Billington-Greig.
At one time, long before the ring road sliced it in two, the street boasted an impressive 16 pubs from the Flag Market up to what was the Lamb and Packet – now a film set owned by the university.
Now the two halves have completely different identities - one a semi-pedestrianised collection of typical high street brands like Cafe Nero, Specsavers and McDonalds and the other a line-up of independents. Noel Corless runs a niche business called That Comic Shop. And he reckons Friargate is “awesome.”
“I worked her for a long time and when the owner retired I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” he said. “Now, 11 years on, I’m still here in Friargate. It’s awesome and I love it.
“The city centre is very cosmopolitan, new shops are opening all the time. It’s got a real sense of community.”
Sam John Baptiste, who runs the Original Barbershop, has been in Friargate for eight years and said: “It’s unbelievable how much it’s changed.”
And David Reid, manager of the Sun Hotel - a traditional pub bypassed by the thirsty hordes of university students - reckons it still does better than the trendier hostelries further down the road.
“Our clientele are the more mature adults, like 50-plus,” he said. “The kids avoid us. They take one look inside the door and see the age group in here and go elsewhere.
“But we are still successful. At weekends it’s wall-to-wall. It always has been and, while pubs elsewhere in the city centre might struggle a bit, we do okay. Friargate is a busy place.”