A new internet cafe will soon open where Mecca Souq once stood. What will it do to the vision of a village shopping strip, post-upgrade, designed to revitalise the town centre?
By Bruce Morris
So here we are, just a week or two away from the end of the village upgrade project, and along comes a bit of news that is as welcome as an eliminated slip lane or right-hand turn.
The upgrade is intended to revitalise the town centre – to help, over time, create a smart precinct that pulls locals back to a strip that was starting to look shoddy.
In the medium to long term, the Unitary Plan will do its thing, drawing developers to replace some of the unappealing buildings and replace them with multi-storey blocks: shops below and apartments and offices above. Like it or not, it is the way of the future along rail links.
In the meantime, the hope has been that all commercial and retail tenants and landlords will respond to the upgrade by cleaning up their acts and making their shopfronts more attractive.
Of course, many have always taken pride, realising an attractive front to a business is an added incentive for customers to walk in the door. But the simple truth hasn’t been endorsed by everyone.
Then there is the mix – the food bars, restaurants, noodle houses, pizza places and liquor stores that sit alongside the professional offices and some of the smarter-looking operations.
Everyone seems to pine for the good old days – mainly pre-St Luke’s mall but also through the 1980s – when locals shopped in the village because of the range of outlets.
Those memories of what it used to be like, how it deteriorated and what the upgrade would mean were always raised at meetings and in street chit-chat.
But as the upgrade nears its conclusion, who would have guessed that the latest new businesses to be drawn to the village would be a laundromat (at the very end of the eastern side of the strip, opposite Ballast Lane) and an internet cafe (in the shop previously operated by Mecca Souq).
Do we really need another internet cafe? And isn’t one perfectly satisfactory existing laundromat quite enough in a small shopping precinct?
No one should blame new businesses for giving it a go; they risk capital and sleepless nights in the spirit of free enterprise.
But what about the landlords?
Some of them are progressive and see the logic of searching for new businesses that don’t duplicate the place six doors down and will be an attractive magnet, bringing more people to the centre.
But others plainly don’t consider the wider issue of trying to make the strip more attractive to a wider pool, bringing future demand (at a higher return) to their door. They apparently see their landlord business as a simple matter of keeping the lease cash flowing and will accept tenants who want to try their luck, no matter what the enterprise.
This is frustrating to everyone because the forward-thinking landlords are probably outnumbered. How fair is it to expect them to wait for a tenant that nicely complements the shopping mix when another operator takes a “first-in-first-accepted” approach?
With offshore landlords in the picture – and language and cultural matters an obstacle – it will be a hard nut to crack. But in the post-upgrade era, before the Unitary Plan has its expected impact, few issues are more important to the future of the village.