Kevin Buckle: Old Town needs new thinking
News this week that the ballot for the Old Town Business Improvement District (BID) was to be postponed from June to possibly as late as spring next year didn't come as a great surprise to me.
The word, quite literally on the street, was that the BID had no chance of success and that was confirmed when, accompanying the news, was the comment that they would be looking to come up with a plan that was “more widely acceptable”.
After a disastrous Grassmarket BID, there will always be a hardcore understandably sceptical that things will be any different this time and while the size of the BID area is considerably larger and more viable, it still pales into insignificance compared to its neighbouring BID, Essential Edinburgh, based around Princes Street.
The answer of course is simple and logistically obvious and that is that there should just be one city centre BID. It by no means solves all the problems there are, but it would be a start and a platform from which initiatives to increase footfall in the Old Town could be launched.
At least before the Grassmarket BID there was for instance a Grassmarket Area Trader’s Association and, in its own way, it was quite successful under the leadership of Jos Bastiaensen, of Helios Fountain, my old next door neighbour.
Now not only is there nothing in place while the Old Town BID is delayed but there is, as far as I am aware, no Plan B should the ballot go against the BID.
Improvement in the Old Town’s fortunes is needed sooner rather than later and at this rate they could be back to square one with little chance of there being plans for the whole of 2019.
While the high street’s problems are well documented, the solutions I often hear are far from well informed. The idea for instance that somebody pops into a nail bar and then does a bit of shopping afterwards is just not the case. At best a sandwich shop next door might get a sale, but in the old days something like a gift shop would do well on casual footfall but that no longer applies.
Now if somebody sees something interesting in a window that might make a good gift come Christmas, they don’t return to the shop they saw the item in but instead look online come the time.
A good thing about tourists is they are at least more likely to want to go shopping, but Edinburgh really needs to rethink its strategy on this. Of course some sensible, joined-up thinking will certainly help and there is no doubt some organisation is needed in the Old Town, but people need something positive to sign up to and I’ve seen nothing so far that gives people confidence things will be better under a BID and certainly not one that will cost them money!
Which brings us back to having one organisation covering all of the wider city centre. For too long things have been concentrated around Princes Street and it is only now when it finally seems to have been realised that there are indeed public safety concerns with such crowds that there is a will to encourage folk further afield.
I realise I’m repeating myself here from previous columns, but given that I’m meant to respond to the week’s news the sad fact is that the same stories keep cropping up over and over again and we seem to be no nearer to a solution.
I have a horrible feeling that rather than accept the inevitable failure of the Old Town BID those concerned will stumble on, hoping for a miracle, but realistically they face an impossible task. In the same way people think they understand the music industry because they listen to music, those making decisions think they understand the high street because they sometimes shop on the high street. Unfortunately most of the time this is not the case. Blue-sky thinking is a phrase people love to use these days but I prefer black-sky thinking which includes in its definition the “future is messy”.
I’ll take your question, Mr Ferguson
After Edinburgh council quickly revised their plans on how the Ross Bandstand project should be managed, it made me wonder whether they should have their own Press Secretary à la White House to both brief the meida and answer questions.
Seemingly while this is the case with the Scottish Government, for the council there merely exists the option for a convener to hold a press meeting.
Personally I would tune in to watch arts reporter Brian Ferguson shout out questions at Culture Convener Donald Wilson and Executive Director of Place Paul Lawrence.
I talk about better distribution like a broken record
Two of my favourite local artists have albums out in the next couple of weeks and it only reinforces my doubts about the recent award from Creative Scotland to the Scottish Music Industry Association to create a Scottish music infrastructure.
There is a need to help bands reach a wider audience but that should be a UK audience, not a Scottish audience, and those distributors are already in place. The problem is that, with ever-decreasing sales at all levels and bands keen to sell directly to their fans, this often doesn’t leave enough to make distribution worthwhile. At the same time, shops knowing that fans have already been targeted are reluctant to stock a release hoping a more casual fan may come along, so the lack of distribution sales can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Certainly if I was to ever release albums again on the Avalanche label, I would hope bands would see the benefits of getting a few more copies into shops and selling a few less online. I’m not advocating no online sales, we are way too far down the line for that, but to encourage fans to go into shops if they can and otherwise buy online is a sensible compromise. At the same time, hopefully in the knowledge that bands have been supportive, shops will reciprocate and take stock.
Out this week is the Hamish James Hawk album, From Zero To One, which is one for fans of Belle and Sebastian, Withered Hand and Magnetic Fields. Having just toured with King Creosote, Hamish will hopefully have acquired some new fans just in time for the album. There isn’t a weak song on the album and lyrically there is currently nobody better. The following week is the release of What We Might Know from Broken Records and for this album they went back to the producer of their first EP, Stephen Watkins. Jamie Sutherland has never hidden his love for Bruce Springsteen and the songs have always been epic with a more contemporary Arcade Fire twist. This, their fourth album, is as good as any and they are touring to promote it in April and May. Neither of the albums have wide distribution or possibly any distribution at all, but I’m sure both can be obtained after a quick google and, for those who prefer to download, no doubt they will be on all digital platforms.