THE coronavirus pandemic has seen Basingstoke town centre take a turn for the worse, with major retail units, such as Debenhams and John Lewis, currently lying empty.

Attempts are being made to bring life back to the town, with the Gazette recently reporting how shopping centre Festival Place has been using art and creative projects to draw back the crowds.

But could the town learn from success stories elsewhere? As the Covid crisis has affected retail up and down the country, councils and private organisations alike have had to get creative.

The BBC recently reported that active entertainment company Gravity had taken its go-karting experience to an empty Debenhams unit in South London.

"We're creating a department store of fun," said Michael Harrison, the co-founder of Gravity.

He told the BBC: "We have three bars, two restaurants, go-karting, a bowling alley, huge screens to watch sporting events and adventure golf. This is the future of the High Street. It's about experience.”

Meanwhile, Mark Allan of Landsec, which owns the Southside shopping centre where Gravity is based, told the BBC that he would encourage other towns to follow the trend.

He said: "Covid has been a tipping point. If we don't tackle it over the next couple of years together then there's a real risk some of this redundant retail property sits there for decades empty and that would be a disaster for the communities where that property is located.

"This needs people to come together. I think it's a significant moment and a really big opportunity, particularly for those centres and high streets where there is no future for retail, for radical, bold, thinking. I think it could be exciting."

Michael Harrison added that Gravity has no shortage of retail landlords now contacting them to offer potential new locations, so we asked Festival Place and Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council whether it is something they are considering …

‘New and creative uses for units’

BDBC leader Cllr Ken Rhatigan said: “As part of our work to support the borough’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to work closely with our town centre partners at Festival Place, The Malls and businesses in the Top of the Town to develop the local offer and ensure the town centre is a top shopping and leisure destination that attracts people to the area.

“Alongside our work with partners, we have launched a number of new initiatives to support retailers and encourage shoppers to return to the town centre. This includes the new Borough Basket Street Market which aims to give small local businesses the opportunity to raise their profile and sell their goods to a wider audience and a programme of events to attract more shoppers to the area and encourage more businesses to move to the Top of the Town. The council also funds free support and advice through IncuHive for anyone interested in starting a new business in the borough.

“To encourage new businesses to take up empty space in the town centre, we will also be launching a new shop front grant scheme shortly which will provide funding for new and existing retailers to improve or help refurbish their premises.”

While Cllr Rhatigan did not confirm whether the council is aware of any ‘experience day’ plans, he did say that encouraging landlords to “support new and creative uses for their units” is high on the agenda.

“At the current time we don’t have any empty council-owned units in the Top of the Town and we are in discussions with potential occupiers for two empty units in The Malls,” he said.

“As well as our work alongside partners to attract new businesses to the town centre, we would encourage landlords to support new and creative uses for their units to ensure the town centre offers something for everyone.”

However, it comes as this week the Gazette revealed that the council has been holding secret meetings to discuss the option of turning sections of Festival Place into flats. While this could be an alternative option for developing the town centre at a time difficult for retail, it has been met with concerns from members of the public and opposition councillors regarding whether town centre residential facilities supports the economic recovery of the area.

‘Always open to new ideas’

Meanwhile, Festival Place outlined its already-existent ‘experiences’ and said they were happy with using the empty units to showcase local talent.

However, they too failed to rule out the option of something similar to what Gravity has set up elsewhere, and said that they are “always open to new ideas”.

Emily Palmer, marketing manager, told the Gazette: “At Festival Place we are proud of the experiences that we offer our visitors. Not only are we a place to shop, but also a destination for friends and families to come and spend their leisure time.

“People can go wild at Flip Out jumping on some of the biggest trampolines; test their mental agility at Escape Hunt or simply sit and lose themselves in the latest blockbuster at Vue Cinema.”

She continued: “Being at the heart of the Basingstoke community we are always looking for innovative ways to attract our visitors – giving them something they wouldn’t see anywhere else.

“Our vacant units give us the opportunity to showcase some of the incredibly exciting projects that local groups, colleges and charities are working on – something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, certainly not in such a large shopping centre.

“Over the past couple of years we have brought book barns, virtual orchestras, pop-up car shows, art exhibitions and pantos to some of our units and they go down a storm with our visitors.

“We are always open to new ideas and with Christmas fast approaching – watch this space!”