Is town in need of retail therapy?

The Kingdom Shopping Centre in Glenrothes
The Kingdom Shopping Centre in Glenrothes

TO outsiders, Glenrothes is probably best-known as ‘that town with all the roundabouts’, but to natives it would appear that one of the over-riding impressions is of poor quality shopping.

A number of recent store closures have sparked calls for an improved ‘shopping experience’, not only in the Kingdom Centre itself, but in the surrounding area.

But how realistic is it, in the current economic climate, to entertain visions of major ‘high street’ players and even designer outlets coming to this part of central Fife?

Liaising with our readers through social networking, it’s clear that there is a widespread desire for change.

Recent Facebook debates have unleashed a wave of criticism of the current situation, but also some constructive suggestions as to how perceived problems can best be addressed.

In a nutshell, the criticism centres on the retail mix in the centre, with suggestions that there are too many shops of the same type. Many commentators also bemoan the absence of major names and believe rent levels and lease lengths may be at least partly responsible.

That was certainly the view of Mhari Bristow, who contacted us to comment: “The mall owners need to start by reducing the rent as surely it’s better to have a town centre full of open shops paying half rent than a town centre with only a few open shops paying full rent? This may encourage a lot more choice in the shops that we have instead of bakers, card shops or ‘phone shops!”

Julie Stevenson commented: “I go to Newcastle and buy my son’s clothes. There is nothing in the town centre for me or my husband. Nowhere to buy pc equipment, or iPod iPad accessories. Want a washing machine? Take the car to Kirkcaldy. Want my lush cosmetics? Forget Glenrothes. A decent family restaurant? We can now go to the cinema but nowhere to eat either before or after.”

Hayley Gibson was one of those who calling for major change, including a revamp of the town centre, but believes the financial situation of the town had to be taken into account. “As much as I agree that Glenrothes needs better shops, there is no point in bringing big retailers such as Next, River Island, FCUK, Oasis or Debenham’s here as they will not survive. People in this area (not all but the majority) do not have the finance to really shop in these stores as they are expensive. So if a re-furbishment does go ahead then perhaps small business would be better suited within that area to boost employment within the area and get the economics of Glenrothes moving again.”

But Michael Westwater wasn’t so sure that was the case, commenting: “It’s not that there isn’t money in the Glenrothes area to support better shops. The issue is the more affluent people in the town are shopping elsewhere - Perth, Dundee and so on - as they are easy enough to get to.” But he felt that the centre does have strengths: “The centre has free car parking, a reason people give for shopping at retail parks. The fourth phase extension, with Rothes Halls, is fairly attractive inside with the high glass ceilings. The halls are a great asset. The Bus Station, I understand, is the busiest in Fife. The centre is the only one of the three largest towns in Fife with a cinema. Some of the art works in the centre are good. These are all good qualities, but there are far more negatives to the centre which desperately need to be addressed, not least by the mall owners who should really be investing far, far more to improve the offer in the centre.”

In fairness too, it has to be said that the local management of the centre have been innovative in many areas. The centre has, for example, just won a safer shopping award for a third time running, having become the first town in Scotland to achieve one in 2007. They have also tried to open up the centre to greater community involvement, which has included two very successful exhibitions staged by Glenrothes and Area Heritage Centre - in talks with mall management to find a permanent base there - and they are also strong on liaison with schools and young children, which produced last year’s very successful Hippo Parade design project.

There is also an ongoing council-sponsored Glenrothes town centre action plan, created in the wake of last year’s ‘Picture Glenrothes’ public consultation, which seeks to take a more ‘holistic’ approach to the wider area.

A report prepared as part of that process, by Willie Miller Urban Design, said: “The continuing though declining commercial vitality of Glenrothes and the high standard of management in the Kingdom Centre is in marked contrast to the depressed state of some failing town centres in Scotland.”

But it added: “The quality of retail offer in the centre has been affected by the recession.

“Many higher income residents of the town and the wider catchment area choose other centres - in Fife and beyond - to shop...the centre’s most loyal customers are from lower income groups, and this is reflected in the retail offer.

“The centre is an enclosed indoor mall - fashions change and in the past ten years in particular there has been a strong push to return to traditional streets woven into the urban fabric.

“Small and medium-sized town centres have been severely squeezed by profound changes in the way we shop and spend our leisure time, driven by unprecedented levels of consumer choice and personal mobility.”

The plan will take around three years to deliver, running until late 2013, and will then be reviewed. The aims are to make the town centre more accessible, give people more reason to visit it during the day and at night and creating an environment that will benefit businesses and visitors.

Partnership working has been key to the success of town centres elsewhere, including Livingston, and one of the candidates at the coming council election believes that is the way forward.

Independent Bob Taylor said: “I’d like to get senior officials at Fife Council to sit down with Kingdom Centre management and Fife Arts Trust (which runs Rothes Halls) to come forward with a new proposal to regenerate the place.”

Labour’s Bill Kay is of a similar mind, adding: “The current range of shops is very limited. The centre needs to be expanded to include the Retail Park, ASDA and Morrisons. There also has to be discussions with major national stores to ascertain what the council can do to encourage them to come to Glenrothes. Our town is centrally located at the heart of Fife and capable of attracting customers from much of north-east and central Fife. All that is required is ambition and vision.”

The Scottish National Party’s Peter Grant commented: “The single biggest problem is they don’t have a big name ‘anchor’ store - major supermarket or department store that brings in big numbers of customers who then patronise the smaller shops as well.

“The centre’s local managers do a good job, but they need (owners) AXA/CIS head office in London to start delivering.”

.The likeliest store to fulfil that ‘anchor’ role is the proposed Tesco, which would be built on the north side of the centre at Falkland Gate and the company gave assurances this week that it plans to progress with this despite reigning in similar projects elsewhere (see page two).

Neither CIS, or Capita Symonds, the local management company, offered to comment.