SPECIAL REPORT: Northampton needs to overcome its identity crisis to compete with Rushden Lakes
With only weeks to go until a Â£140 million shopping centre opens in the north of the county, Northampton traders believe the town finds itself at a crucial crossroads. It's time to adapt or die.
Business owners have been giving their experiences of trading in Northampton in a set of frank discussions with the Chron this week.
And as the first set of shops prepare to open at Rushden Lakes, all of the bosses we spoke to said the same thing – it is time for a real rethink in the town.
“It could be the death of the market” said Eamonn Fitzpatrick, who has sold fruit and veg in the square for 45 years and is seriously concerned about the footfall draw that Rushden Lakes will have.
“This market is hanging on by a thread and Rushden Lakes isn’t going to do it any favours.”
One thing, traders say, is clear - Northampton is facing an identity crisis.
In terms of brand name pulling power the town is languishing behind neighbours Milton Keynes.
On July 28, a 42,000 square ft Marks and Spencers will open in Rushden Lakes, dwarfing the chain’s counterpart in Abington street.
On the other hand, while there are pockets of independent shopping and some real gems dotted around the centre, it lacks the eye-catching cafe culture of a Cambridge.
Speaking to the Chron, our group of traders believe there are a handful of problems holding Northampton back.
Top of the list is the regularly clogged up-roads around the North Gate Bus Station.
Carol Faulkner, who owns Northampton Health Shop in The Drapery says she has even considered moving to Rushden Lakes herself because of it.
The bus stops outside of her premises are regularly the site of chaotic scenes as frustrated commuters gather, stranded by the latest gridlock.
She said: “I think Rushden Lakes is going to affect Northampton, there isn’t anything to keep people here.”
“People that come here only to get trapped in the car park on their way home, they won’t come back to Northampton.
“It’s a big issue still and it’s not going to go away any time soon.”
A lack of cleanliness comes high on their list of gripes in the town.
Owner of St Giles Garden Cafe, Trevor Ridsdale, said his customers regularly comment on litter.
“I was in here Sunday morning and it was filthy,” he said.
“It’s alright promoting the town, but if people see a filthy place hey won’t come back.”
But our team of traders also proposed a number of possible solutions.
While the recent wooden knight sculptures dotted around town have been well received, there is a feeling Northampton is under-selling its rich history.
The town has links to Kings Charles and Henry, sits on a layer of mysterious underground tunnels and saw the birth of Dr Martens shoes - yet, in the case of the latter, it doesn’t have a shop or museum dedicated to the iconic bootmaker.
Michella Dos Santos, who owns the Magic Bean Emporium in St Giles Street, said: “Why aren’t these things tourist attractions?
“Imagine how many people would come to a tour of the tunnels, imagine how good that would be in the school summer holidays?”
Miss Dos Santos, who had difficulties opening her cafe in 2014 when the council told her she could not sell hot food at the premises, believes award-winning St Giles Street itself is undersold.
“This is supposed to be the best high street in the UK an no one knows where it is,” she said in relation to a lack of signposting around town.
Manager Yanny Bruere also feels a number of so-called silver bullets have failed to hit their mark in Northampton too.
Abington Street being opened to cars, the North Gate Bus Station and moving county council employees to the glass-fronted, purpose-built One Angel Square were all sold as major trade drivers.
But so far Mr Bruere, says the supposed influx of 1,500 council employees has barely made a dent to the trade in St Giles.
Hopes for a major footfall driver are now realistically pinned on the University of Northampton’ Waterside campus across the river from Becket’s Park depositing thousands of students in the town centre and the four-acre Greyfriars development attracting retailers on a par with the Rushden Lakes scheme.
The plans on the former bus station land are to build a cinema complex, a trampoline park and hundreds of apartments. But Mr Bruere feels it could represent a wasted opportunity.
“They had all that space to think outside of the box, but they are just putting in more restaurants and shops. It is just more of the same.
“This land was a chance for us to do something a bit different.”
If Northampton is to re-launch itself as a York or a Cambridge, rich in history and clean with places to eat and drink, the Market Square will need to be addressed, thinks Eammon ‘Fitzy’ Fitzpatrick.
He said: “I have been campaigning for 12 years now to do something to the market place. I got 15,000 signatures at one point.
“It has to change or we will lose it. We need lockable units, that will be a big thing.”
Greg Lunas, the manager of the MMA gym in Sol Central was disappointed to see the site’s owners Palace Capital shelve major plans to expand its restaurant offer into the former Gala Casino.
But he is confident that the influx of university students will be key to boosting trade, particularly in the St Giles, Abington Street area.
“I don’t see the town as struggling quite as much as other people,” he said.
“I think it is important to look at a lot of other towns and see how they are doing.
“It is easy to moan about your home town.”
So, the traders have spoken and their plan to breathe life back into the town is clear. Clean it up, concentrate on our proud history, capitalise on the student offer, enhance the Market Square.
All these things seem very do-able.
Are you listening, councillors?