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High Street gloom

PUBLISHED: 16:47 09 September 2009 | UPDATED: 11:03 23 August 2010

CLOSED UNTIL

CLOSED UNTIL

TRADERS claim the closure of major high street retailers, expensive rents and the recession are killing off business as more than 40 town centre shops sit vacant. An exclusive Reporter survey of business owners can reveal the damaging effect of the credi

DEPRESSING: An empty shop.

TRADERS claim the closure of major high street retailers, expensive rents and the recession are killing off business as more than 40 town centre shops sit vacant.

An exclusive Reporter survey of business owners can reveal the damaging effect of the credit crunch on Gravesend's struggling town centre.

A total of 43 business premises stand empty and unused across the area, a situation which has remained unchanged since we first investigated the extent of the problem in March.

Tony Jewell, 58, owner of Computer Food, Windmill Street, said: "I have been working in the town centre for ten years and there have always been businesses coming and going.

DESERTED: Another vacant premise.

"The council should do more to help, but it won't. It is not taking into consideration the rents businesses have to pay. This is one of the main problems.

"I looked at moving, and one premises on the High Street was asking £13,000 a year. No one can afford that. It's been empty for two years."

With ten shops standing empty and many more feeling the bite of the recession the High Street, situated in the heart of the town's Heritage Quarter, is one of the worst hit areas.

John McCarthy, 53, owner of Cheep! pet store in High Street, said: "We have definitely noticed a drop off in business over the last 12 months.

"A lot of people seem to be going to retail parks now where all the big name shops are in Bluewater so it is difficult to compete.

"It doesn't help when the shops close as even less people come down here then and that has an impact as well.

"There are people who have been down here looking at the empty shops but the rents are too expensive. The landlords need to put the prices down. You would think they would do a special rate just to get people in them.

"Things don't look good for the future. I'd say there was a danger of the town dying out."

Kent based estate agents Accommodate own several business premises in Gravesend town centre. Managing director Robin Draper said: "I don't think the rents are particularly high. The problem really is the entrepreneurs coming forwards to take up the small shops have not got the confidence to take them up. They are frightened because in the past there have been call backs of capital that has been loaned to smaller businesses and they are unwilling to take the risk.

"This situation is the same all over the place, not just in Gravesend."

The closure of Gravesend's Woolworths in December last year was also a huge blow for the high street, traders claim.

Jacqueline Dray, assistant manager of Shoe World in High Street, Gravesend, has worked at the store for the last three and a half years.

She said: "The rates are too high, and everybody is struggling. But since Woolworths has gone, that has been the real killer.

"Before it acted as a draw to this part of town. We had people coming down this way who were attracted to the top of the high street. During a recession, when businesses are struggling anyway, it doesn't help.

"We are not getting the right variety of shops around here and that has been going on for the last four or five years.

"The shops in this street have seen people come and go and they are just being left empty. It looks awful, it just doesn't attract people down here when you have shops left empty covered in posters and looking tatty. There is just nothing to entice people down here."

Gravesham Borough Council says it is aware of the situation and is working on ways to improve town centre footfall such as the free weekend parking scheme introduced in May.

Simon Hookway, Gravesham Borough Council's economic development manager, said: "The recession has not helped the number of empty premises and the council is doing all it can to encourage businesses into those shops. We are aware of lots of interest in some of the stores presently empty but we eagerly await positive announcements by a number of companies.

"Specifically in the High Street, the old Town Hall restoration is moving ahead and we hope that that too will be an attraction for new businesses. We hope there will be news of the reopening of the Town Pier Riva bar and restaurant very soon and there has been interest in the former Woolworths premises."

The council says that a number of projects are also in the planning stages to ensure the town takes full advantage of the extra business generated by the festive season.

Mr Hookway added: "The next step will be a better-than-ever Christmas in Gravesend with a number of projects in the planning stage. We will continue to consult with local businesses and keep them informed of our plans.

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