Businesses can drown their sorrows on North Bridge - Kevin Buckle

I heard this week that there is now only a whisky shop and a gin shop left trading on North Bridge, with no prospect of any of the empty retail units being filled soon.

Saturday, 19th June 2021, 7:00 am
The St James Quarter's distinctive hotel, as viewed from Calton Hill. There is talk of the development accounting for 30 per cent of the city centre’s business
The St James Quarter's distinctive hotel, as viewed from Calton Hill. There is talk of the development accounting for 30 per cent of the city centre’s business

In a week when Spaces for People was again discussed in council at length what is needed just as much is a Recovery for Retail plan. While retail woes are not unique to Edinburgh the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in what Edinburgh city centre has to offer shoppers compared to other cities.

A plan announced this week to remove traffic from part of London’s Oxford Street identified the problem was that there were too many brands featured that could be found elsewhere meaning the street was no longer a destination but failed to explain how the new measures would address that.

Edinburgh’s retail offering has now gone one step further by putting all those brands in a lovely shiny new shopping centre adding in lots of nice food and leaving Edinburgh’s main shopping street, Princes Street, with more empty shops than has ever been seen before.

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What amazes city centre businesses is that the very thing they fear, the St James Quarter opening, is what they are told is going to save them. The logic behind this is very easy to understand and statistically verifiable though I do suspect that all will be done to come up with figures that are positive à la Edinburgh’s Christmas Market.

Nobody doubts the new shopping centre will take customers away from other city centre businesses but the argument is that the new Quarter will also be such an attraction that the extra people it will attract that would not have come to Edinburgh otherwise will not only make up for this but in fact increase business elsewhere.

Now this is very much the Christmas Market’s reasoning that hundreds of thousands of people only come to Edinburgh for the market and then despite all evidence to the contrary, as retailers and food outlets less than ten minutes away lie empty, those people then visit other city centre businesses making up for all the lost revenue taken by the pop-ups.

I think the St James Quarter has a far better case for claiming it will bring folk in from far and wide, at least initially, but I do suspect that many will simply drive to the Quarter and then just drive away again.

I’ve heard supporters of the new centre say it will be so good you will be able to spend all day there. Exactly! There is talk of it accounting for 30 per cent of the city centre’s business. Are these people really saying that sort of figure can be achieved without adversely affecting others.

I’m not saying these optimists are wrong, I am saying they are probably wrong, but more importantly if they are right and the new Quarter generally has a positive impact it definitely won’t be big enough to mean that further measures aren’t necessary and yet there are no other plans, just this wild hope that the St James Quarter will open followed by the Johnnie Walker Centre and all will be well.

I’ll watch things unfold from my Waverley Mall bunker!