Winners and losers - How trams changed Edinburgh

Sam Withall at her William Street shop. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Sam Withall at her William Street shop. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IN less than 24 hours, Edinburgh Trams will begin to roll with paying passengers – through streets which now look very different to when the project first began.

Many businesses have disappeared, unable to cope with the loss in trade which the roadworks brought; others have opened up, keen to take advantage of the city’s shiny new train set.

Barricades, diversions and road closures were hallmarks of a project that crippled prime retail pitches along the length of the route.

After six tumultuous years, Leith Walk and Shandwick Place – a traffic-free zone for around 21 months – are still shuddering from the aftershock.

Both areas shouldered the brunt of the “trambles”, as firms folded amid a “perfect storm” of tram works and recession, while many reported stagnation and dwindling finances.

Sam Withall, 47, who runs designer clothes outlet Sam Brown in William Street, ran into financial difficulties at the height of the saga and downsized from two shops to one.

But she isn’t bitter about the tram-related downturn of her fortunes and spoke of a sea-change in the West End since the project started.

“There’s probably just three or four shops that are still here since the start of the tram works,” she said.

“It’s been transformational, it is completely different.”

Along West Maitland Street, the Mercat Bar may assume the unwanted title as ‘last victim of the trams’ after owner Graham Blaikie called time on the struggling business last week.

It follows a catalogue of businesses around Shandwick Place – among them the Hudson Hotel in 2010 and Sugacane sweet shop in 2012 – driven to the brink by tram disruption.

Michael Apter, director of Paper Tiger and chairman of the West End Association, admits the project was “difficult and costly”.

He said: “We have endured years of works which have cost us custom, profit, jobs and livelihoods.

“This Saturday will be a bittersweet moment for many of us, but the main emotion for me is relief that this is over with.”

A survey of independent retailers in 2011 revealed almost one-third of city centre stores had suffered a downturn in trade, while five per cent of businesses had seen turnover drop by up to 40 per cent.

The agony of untold 
disruption, sealed-off streets and plummeting footfall was only topped by the irony of contract disputes that saw workers down tools in 2009.

Shopkeepers gazed out over empty, torn-up tarmac bordered by steel fencing for more than a year as construction failed to progress an inch as tense talks between German contractor Bilfinger Berger and the city council eventually brokered a peace deal.

Just two years ago, shocking figures revealed one in 12 shops in the city centre were lying empty – the highest vacancy rate since 2006 with 114 unfilled units.

Even slashed business rates failed to win round traders.

The relief when Shandwick Place finally reopened last October was epitomised by business owners smashing to pieces a tram-shaped pinata – symbolic of their collective attitude towards the project.

Economic forecasts predict the tram will bring great investment to West Edinburgh – possibly up to 5000 jobs and £1 billion a year to the economy – while the West End has already attracted hotel and supermarket giants jostling for positions close to the new transport hub of Haymarket.

Property values for homes near to the line may also soar – following the pattern of Dublin, Naples, Minneapolis and St Louis.

The battle for hearts and minds was waged last year but for many, including tram critic Grant McKeeman, who runs Copymade printing shop in West Maitland Street, the protracted project can be described as nothing other than an “unmitigated nightmare”.

“I can’t say anything positive about it,” he said. “I sound very bitter and I’ve heard comments from people sitting on the other side of the town who have no idea what went on.

“You had to be here to understand how hard it is for traders. To this day I don’t understand the argument for a tram line.”

Bad business

Here are some of the losers – and winners – from the ‘trambles’

CLOSED

• Sugacane sweet shop, West End.

• Hudson Hotel. Put up for sale amid claims it was losing £200,000 through tram disruption.

• Robbie’s Services, York Place. Cobbler forced to close last July.

• Mercat Bar, West Maitland Street. Believe to be the “last victim of the trams” after closing earlier this month.

• Guilty clothes shop, Stafford Street.

• Trinket vintage jewellery shop, William Street.

• Sam Brown designer clothing store, West End.

OPENING

• 127-bedroom Premier Inn, York Place

• Sainsbury’s, Shandwick Place (former Habitat building)

• Morrisons, Shandwick Place.

ANALYSIS

By Gordon Henderson, Senior development manager, Federation of Small Businesses

I’ve sometimes wondered if the trams saga would ever come to an end, but this week I took a ride on a tram from the city centre to the airport and back so I’m pleased to be able to say it is.

During the construction of the project many of our members along the route were badly affected by crippling drops in footfall and trade. Often overlooked is the effect that the works has had on businesses not located on the route; people stopped travelling to the city centre in order to avoid the disruption.

During our tram ride I asked the city’s economic development convener, Frank Ross, for his views on a line extension to the south of the city to link with the two hospitals and bio quarter at Little France.

He was refreshingly open and made it clear that disruption to businesses and residents was at the forefront of the council’s thinking.

I’m pleased the question wasn’t ducked as it has been before.

So, what will the trams deliver for small business owners in Edinburgh? Plenty. Any mass transport system that makes it easier for people to get to and from work, visit the city, and relax makes it easier for them to spend money and will encourage them to come back again. I attended the Festival Theatre’s 20th birthday celebrations this week. It will benefit from a wider geographic customer base thanks to the trams and so will the many small businesses located next door.