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January 11, 2012

The conundrum facing small towns

Scotland’s small towns face a real challenge. More than a third of the population choose to live in one but the economic conditions that delivered local prosperity and vibrant high streets in the past have long since disappeared.  If there is an answer, it’s increasingly clear that it’s going to be down to local people to find it. Local initiatives like those starting to take off in Irvine or proven successes such as West Kilbride



WEST Kilbride is bucking the trend being seen in high streets up and down the country.

The North Ayrshire village has rebranded itself Craft Town Scotland and has seen a massive rise in shops opening as well as a huge boost in visitor numbers.

By the mid-1990s, more than 50 per cent of the shops in the village centre had closed down.

But since the launch of the West Kilbride Community Initiative in 1996, the village has practically all its 40 retail units open for business.

All of the shops are independently run and sell mostly craft and artistic items.

The project is managed by a volunteer board of directors, whose aim is to lure new businesses to the village and to promote tourism in the area.

They turned the village around by providing affordable studio spaces by slashing business rates and by exploring the niche market of arts and crafts.

In the past few years they have seen visitor numbers increase from around 3000 a year to more than 18,000 – a five-fold increase.

Maggie Broadley, creative executive of the initiative, said: “By 1996, half the shops in our high street, 21 of them, were boarded up but almost all of theproperties are now occupied.

“As well as the craft shops and studios we have an upmarket florist and an award-winning bridal outfitters, Opus Couture, neither of which would have established their business in a town which had 21 boarded up shops.”

As well as the retail side, the initiative promotes community andsocial events, and is in the process of developing the Barony Church in the village into a craft exhibition and activities centre.

Maggie added: “We have been putting into operation for 13 years what retail guru Mary Portas is talking to Parliament about.

“It’s about people coming to see the studios, and while they are visiting they are going to look around the area as well as other local tourist attractions.

“Our success is down to the real good mix of local people identifying a problem, identifying a unique selling point and then just developing that.

“In the early years there was a lot of hard work, and it took about three years before the first studio opened, but since then we haven’t looked back.”

Lorna Reid, 41, has run her design studio and shop from West Kilbride’s Main Street for the past four years.

The mother-of-one, who has been a self-employed textile designer for 21 years, says business has never been so good since she moved into the village.

Visitors to her Chookiebirdie studio and gallery can see her at work, stitching away and designing her collection of home accessories and gifts.

Lorna, who lives in the village, thinks that customers feel more confident in what they are buying if they can see exactly where it has come from.

She said: “Some come in and ask me to make them very specific things, which they wouldn’t be able to do if there wasn’t the set-up there is here.

“I thoroughly enjoy living and working here, it is great for business, and you can’t get much better than that.”

Lorna worked from home before being lured to West Kilbride by the facilities and community spirit.

She added: “I came to West Kilbride looking for something different and to meet like-minded crafters and designers, and when I was offered a studio it changed everything.

“It has been absolutely great forbusiness and because I have a shopfront as well as a studio, I can get an instant reaction from customers to my work.

“Previously I lived in a commuter village and was practically the only person at home during the day but in the village I am involved with the local community and it is this spirit and determination which has led to it becoming what it is today.”