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Opinion: Focus Points for the BID Steering Group

The businesses of Penicuik have a great opportunity to deliver a Business Improvement District, which could prove detrimental to the future of the town, but the question looms over what their priority should be, should a BID be established.

In the coming months over two hundred businesses, in and around Penicuik, will vote on establishing a Business Improvement District in the town. Should it be formed, it will likely prioritise those independent businesses, which may be struggling, over the major retailers such as Tesco and B&M bargains. They will also look at how to attract new business to the town, which will probably be very difficult in the current town centre management layout.

So what do they need to do? This could prove to be a very long list. First, they need to establish whether they are going to choose the easy option or the difficult option, one requiring fundraising and renovation and the other requiring development and demolition.

If it is the easy option, they need to look at how they can improve the town aesthetically with limited funds. I would recommend removing the roughcasting on the High Street shops and reintroducing the old stone frontage, in turn implementing a universal shop front with strict signage guidelines, like what was achieved in Dalkeith. After all, this is the first part of the shopping area commuters see as they enter from the South and pebbledash is far from inspiring, let alone inviting.

If 24 High Street is to remain vacant, the old signage should be removed and a ‘shop jacket’ of sorts applied (it could be a map of the town centre or something useful for tourists). Once High Street is improved aesthetically they can start worrying about attracting the new businesses. To aid this, all operating businesses who join the BID should start paying a ‘community tax’, which will be on a variable scale depending on income. These contributions will join a relief fund which can be used to incentivise start up businesses to open on the high street.

A marketing campaign will be launched simultaneously inviting businesses to join “Midlothian’s Historical Gateway” playing on the expanding population, future transport improvements and the rich culture in the pre-Straiton years. National retailers should not be exempt from this, as they can help to subsidise the younger businesses, but retailers such as pay day lenders, bargain shops and charities should be omitted because we already have two bargain shops, multiple charity shops and one pay day lender and ,whilst they all play a role in the town, any additions to these would render the others pointless. The BID steering group should attract locals to join the retail scene by advertising in local media, holding open meetings and reaffirming that support will be given to those who are willing to spend the time trying to save the local economy. It will not be easy to attract new business and so the group should be prepared to raise funds to aid retailers in opening. For this I suggest crowd funding, an excellent way to involve the community in improving their town. I would use crowd funding to invest in some new Christmas lights for the precinct and maybe some permanent way-finding signs. Once they have done all of this, they should be closer to improving the image of the town centre but it will not change drastically and the scars of our economically challenged years will still be evident.

Now, what if they did some more radical? What if they sought a developer to purchase the shopping centre, someone who would seek to gain profit through redevelopment? If they could attract a developer and a major retail partner they could permanently change the image of the area. Let’s face it, no one will be upset to see the back of the 1960’s built M&Co row of shops and the drab, dull mirrored panels of B&M Bargains.

I propose they get rid of it all, except those buildings predating the 1950’s and the new flat block in the centre, although it is likely the facade would need to be changed to match the surrounding area. The sense of a historical town was lost with the quick overdevelopment of the town centre after the second world war, with the planners forgetting that the remainder of the shopping area was built with stone, which tells the onlookers a story of its past. Currently the concrete and soulless glass tell you a story not of gleeful reminiscence but one of depression. So whilst the concrete is sent to the scrap yard, in should come the stone and glass, no not the glass from B&M but some crystal clear, welcoming glass. Cue the picture of BBC’s New Broadcasting House:

BBC Broadcasting House Image
An example of how glass and stone can coexist. © Oliver Needham

The stone may be slightly different (the BBC stone is slightly lighter) to that used for Penicuik House, but it is the sort of style that Penicuik’s town centre would benefit from greatly.

I must also admit that I’m a member of the no precinct club as I feel that if those passing through could see our shops, they would attract people to stop. So I would also say that the BID steering group must evaluate whether the precinct is working for Penicuik. It may be a case that it is greatly supported and if that is the outcome, then that can easily be remedied with some signage on the road highlighting what’s in the zone. There is a sign already on the A701 but it lacks the visual logos that attract passing drivers. If the precinct is to be eradicated and redeveloped, new arrangements could be made.

A big name would be needed to attract consumers to the newly redeveloped town centre. This could be a supermarket such as Waitrose or even an entertainment venue such as a cinema. Waitrose don’t have a presence anywhere in the Scottish Borders and Penicuik would prove far easier to travel to than Morningside, but the store would have to fight to lessen Tesco’s chokehold, even though Waitrose do price match Tesco already.

Parking would have to be improved alongside this. To maximise floorspace, car parking could be under the building, either with the building on “stilts” above the parking or underground parking. If Penicuik is to be part of future rail or light rail (tram) plans, a station could be located on land at Pomathorn, with subsequent parking facilities also being built. A walking network would then connect this to the town centre.

None of this would come cheap. Everything would hang on attracting a developer, a major name and the council’s support. However the public’s support would be needed above all. It would be very disruptive and a lot of business would be lost for a time so everyone would need to be prepared to jump straight back into the new town and support it.

This is an important moment for the town’s businesses. When they are balloted later this year, they will be cementing their future. A no vote will see the town centre decline to one or two shops and a handful of community buildings but a yes vote gives a new hope to the town. For once the businesses can work together to build a better Penicuik. Will they bite the bullet whilst they have the opportunity and try to stop the inevitable? For the sake of the town, I hope so.

[Image: © Jim Barton, Geograph]