Some retailers have withheld levies due to the organisation charged with rejuvenating the town centre claiming it has lost its focus and is of no benefit to businesses.
One businessman has described the payments to Living Lerwick as “blatant robbery”, while another has accused the organisation set up to breathe new life into the street of losing its way.
But Living Lerwick has fought back, insisting the levies are needed to help it attract £869,000 in funding. The body, which is appointing a new recruit to communicate with shopkeepers, has stressed the “onus” is on businesses to become involved in the process and make themselves heard.
Changes in the town centre have been in the offing for two years after local businesses voted for the area to become a Business Improvement District, or BID.
Living Lerwick was formed to help see the BID to fruition. It paved the way for levies to be collected from businesses in the old town centre conservation area – essentially from The Spiders Web to Cee and Jays, although it also includes George Robertson’s after the electrical outlet said it wanted to join.
The move followed fears the town centre was flagging under the threat of internet sales and the big buying power of supermarket giant Tesco. The levies vary depending on the business.
Now, concerns have been highlighted by owner of Glen Orchy Guest House in Knab Road, Trevor Howarth, whose wife runs the Phusiam Thai Restaurant at the Market Cross.
He criticised the initiative, and questioned what it did for local businesses.
“What is it going to do for my wife’s restaurant? What are they going to do for me, give me a box of flowers? Give me a plantigrub outside the door? I don’t want one, if I did I’d make my own.
“They are not going to do anything for me and I object to handing out £400 for nothing. I work for my money.”
Asked if he had withheld payment of the levy, he replied: “Yes. I’m going to have to pay it, I’m told. But why should I? To me it’s blatant robbery.
“I can’t see what they can do to benefit Lerwick, other than bring in trade. If they had a website, for all the shops in Lerwick … then you’re giving a service.
“A year ago they were opting in. I didn’t want to know about it so I avoided it. Now I’ve got a bill.
“Fifty-five years I’ve been here, and I’ve done everything I can for the benefit of the community I live in.”
Another concerned businessman is Laurence Smith, of Smiths of Lerwick. Mr Smith was one of the founding fathers of the old town centre association, and says Living Lerwick has done nothing new.
“I imagine businesses, in the main, feel there has been very little communication, and a complete lack of a pro-active approach to the vision of the BID. Where was Living Lerwick when this 5p on the bags came out?”
He described initiatives such as floral baskets and street foys as nothing the old association hadn’t already achieved.
“We did all that with a very small amount of money collected from the businesses who were willing to pay.
“I feel aggrieved at this point that it [Living Lerwick] is not working out how it was planned to work out.
“I just sit here from day to day and never hear anything. You get an occasional email, but it’s just not doing what I ever expected it to do. We don’t have a grip on the vision for the BID. We always wanted to see a vital, vibrant town centre, and something Shetland could be proud of.”
He said the street had still not recovered from its downturn in trade, notably since Tesco opened and extended its business in South Road.
“The effects of the internet, and the fact the council allowed Tesco to develop its supermarket into a one-stop shop has taken footfall from the area.
“We worked so hard to get that BID pulled together, and to see it coming to next to nothing is very disappointing.”
John Watt, of Thulecraft, was on the Living Lerwick Committee at its launch, although he has since stood down. He said it had achieved much, but added more communication with retailers would be helpful.
“When I was in Living Lerwick I was surprised by how much they did, but I think most of the other retailers probably don’t appreciate what’s going on in the background.
“We had a meeting once a week, and I knew everything that was going on. Since I left Living Lerwick … I felt there was a lack of communication with the rate payers.”
He said attractions such as the Christmas festival and the Harrison Square development had proved to be highlights in the town.
“At the end of the day, it’s surprising what did go on.”
A common thread among retailers were those who did not wish to be identified. One who refused to give his name said he had stopped paying his levy last year.
“There are a number that have stopped. It seems to be a bit of a shambles, to be honest. Some have never been approached to make a payment. To be quite honest it’s a farce, as far as I’m concerned.”
He added he had spoken to another retailer who was considering withholding payment.
However, BID manager Christena Irvine launched a strong defence of Living Lerwick. She said the levies were needed to help boost the case for hundreds of thousands of pounds the town is seeking through external funding.
The body hopes to gain money from the Townscape Heritage Initiative. Run as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the initiative offers grants from £100,000 to £2 million to help towns and cities improve their built historic environment.
It is hoped money will also come from Historic Scotland’s Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme, to which Living Lerwick has sent an application in conjunction with Shetland Islands Council.
“Really, what it’s [levies] used for is to lever in additional funding. I have to make applications to various different bodies. We’ve been creating reserves in year one and two so we can lever in a big lump of funding in year three.
“When you’re doing that you can’t spend an awful lot on staffing – if we did that they wouldn’t be happy – and we’ve operated very lightly over the first two years. When you’ve only got one member of staff working, … you don’t have time to communicate all the time.”
She said things would improve after a new recruit is brought in at the end of the month to “take control” of communications, freeing her to focus on the essential funding applications.
“All the businesses are regularly invited to different things. Really, some of the onus has to be on the businesses to be part of this. At the end of the day this is about all the businesses working together to make the town centre better. It’s not about me sitting in this office doing everything.
“If they [businesses] feel they have not been consulted with, they could have attended the business forums that were held in March and April this year. [They were] not as well attended as you would hope.
It’s very easy to sit and complain and not take part. It’s not so easy to make a difference.”
Chairwoman of Living Lerwick is Cynthia Adamson, of M&Co. She said the organisation was “where we thought it would be” at this time, but warned “things don’t happen overnight.”
“I can understand that if some businesses do feel they have not been communicated to from us, because Christena has been working her socks off behind the scenes on funding applications, which is sizable.
“It’s over £800,000 which is going to be huge money for the town centre. But it’s an open door here. The directors all work in the vicinity, and would be very happy to see anyone.”