THE NEWSDESK: First signs we're putting the heart back into our city centre
THE reaction to our story last week that despite some very difficult times, the Wildings department store was aiming to stay in the city centre, was interesting.
Thousands read it. And there were a number of comments left on our website showing the depth of affection there is in the city for one of its commercial institutions.
We announced that the city's oldest high street department store is having a £140,000 makeover in May.
Store bosses say that demonstrates its loyalty to the city it serves, and has served since 1874.
Peter James, managing director of the Wildings Group since 1995, says: “The level of trade has been dire since 2006. We’ve had year on year decreases in sales, so we had a business decision to make.”
The store could have pulled out of its birthplace and continued its business in its shops in Cardiff, Bath and Thornbury.
But instead it is giving our ailing city centre one last chance on the promise of the redevelopment of Friar's Walk and the trade the move of the Admiral jobs into the city centre will bring.
Mr James, whose father was director before him, says: “We have got a proud history of trading in Newport. We’ll give it one last shot, so that if we have to close we can say to ourselves we did all we could.”
The department store founded by 21-year-old hatter Alfred Wilding is a bell-weather for the health of our city centre.
If we want our city to have a thriving centre, businesses like Wildings - so much a part of Newport's history - have to be able to flourish.
And forget any idea that independent department stores should be consigned to the Are You Being Served? generation.
If our city centre does not offer destination shopping, and a good shopping experience with good customer service, why should people not simply stay home and click on websites all day?
High street shopping survives when it is a social event, and what better place for that than our independent department stores?
Mr James says it all: “There are not enough reasons to come into town. We hope we will be a reason for local shoppers to come back into the town.”
There was more positive news with the Assembly Viable and Vibrant Places funds which the city has secured.
How that cash - close to £15m - is going to be spent is a good step forward.
The three-year-long regeneration project includes a raft of property and training-based schemes, with a big focus on bringing many of the city centre’s neglected upper floors back into use.
And a number of projects will be bringing people to live and work in non-retail jobs at the heart of our city centre.
Transforming great old buildings in the process.
Music to my ears, as those who regularly read this column will know.
The funds will mean Newport council works alongside private developers and social landlords.
There are plans to create space for business start-ups also in the offing.
One of the projects set to benefit from V&VP grant cash is a scheme to transform the Grade II listed former Yates Wine Lodge on High Street into a 60-bedroom Premier Inn Hotel, where work has already started.
There are proposals for the facade of Park Square car park and neighbouring two shops to be revamped, with five flats created above the foyer entrance.
One project would see improvements to first floor properties in the Newport Market building, while the council plans to provide up to 24 homes in Lower Dock Street.
Plans to renovate a derelict listed building on Cardiff Road near the Royal Gwent Hospital with 15 apartments are also part of the scheme.
In the second year, the council plans for two or three large derelict buildings to be renovated at the north of Commercial Street, creating 93 homes - including 40 flats on the upper floors of a building on the corner of High Street and Skinner Street.
It's a great kick start for the process this city badly needs - that, hand in hand, our city centre businesses fill our empty shop units while people are encouraged to come and live in it.
We all know our city's heart can no longer solely be viewed as a shopping centre, but has to be a European-style mix of stores, non-retail businesses and homes.
And let's hope that symbiotic process will ensure the faith Wildings has shown in the city centre is repaid.
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