Rob Woods, Hastings Town Centre manager since 2005, is set to retire at the end of this month.
His retirement comes 18 months after spearheading the campaign to create a Business Improvement District (BID) in Hastings.
Rob said: “It’s impeccable timing. I can retire knowing the town centre is in good hands and the BID will deliver improvements that simply weren’t possible before.”
Rob has seen major changes in town centres over the last decade: “When I came to Hastings, we took big advantage of Government and European grants, the retail offer was much greater than it is now and Internet selling was just starting to gather momentum.”
Nowadays, funds to support town centre regeneration are much harder to come by and Internet sales account for £1 in every £6 spent. As far as retail is concerned, Rob feels it’s not necessarily the decreasing number of shops but the choice that is the greatest concern.
He said: “The number of national chain stores selling big ticket items such as clothes and electrical goods has declined. In Hastings I estimate around 40 well known retail stores have closed since 2007. We all affectionately remember Woolworth and BHS but tend to forget about the likes of Blockbuster Video, Music Zone, Jessops and Threshers.”
In the same time, around 200 smaller, independent stores have also closed or changed hands. Rob’s general view is that it is healthy to have a churn of small businesses because it creates new interest, but the marked change over the last few years has been the increase in hairdressers, tattoo and nail parlours, charity shops and cafés. Rob is often asked for the reasons for that. He said: “There are those who want to blame the council but its a much more complex issue.
“Over the last decade, the way the nation shops has undergone a radical transformation.
“Shoppers are taking advantage of the increased choice offered by the Internet and out-of-town shopping centres like Glyne Gap and the Ashford Outlet. It’s not going to change. By the 2020s, online shopping will make up a third of all retail activity.”
He goes on: “What people are seeing now is in my view a direct consequence of that transformation. You can’t buy a haircut, a tattoo, a cappuccino or a nail extension on the Internet!
“Primark will be good for the town in that respect because it doesn’t have an online shopping facility.”
After 2007, regular images of empty shops nationwide triggered questions over the value of Town Centre Management organisations and while many throughout Kent and Sussex were wound up, Hastings Borough Council continued to support TCM in Hastings and its aspiration to evolve in to the first Business Improvement District in East Sussex.
Rob said: “Town centre managers are charged with understanding the complexity of high street changes and coming up with effective responses. Things were always going to be harder after the 2007 economic downturn but hard evidence for sustaining Town Centre Management was not always easy to come by and several of my colleagues in other towns lost their jobs.”
Rob is grateful for the support he received from the Borough Council; his boss, Graham Marley, at the Let’s Do Business Group; previous chairmen of the former Town Centre Management group; and the BID Steering Group led by the current chairman, Colin Dormer.
He said: “I will be eternally grateful for the vote of confidence and I’m sure Hastings will benefit from it in the longer run.”
So, what about the future? Rob said: “Town centres have to adapt to survive and succeed. The new BID in Hastings can provide the strong local leadership necessary but any town centre needs to adapt to the changing trends. Put simply, they have to be diverse, accessible, safe and attractive across both day and evening economies.”
John Bownas, formerly media relations manager at Croydon Council, has been appointed to succeed Rob.
When asked if he had any advice, he said: “Yes, use the BID funds to encourage people to think ‘bricks before clicks’. Improving visitor experiences, heightening enjoyment and prolonging the time people spend in the town centre will bring huge rewards. Current analysis shows that those who shop socially in town centres with family and friends spend up to 50 per cent more than those who shop alone.”
Rob added: “I wish John, the BID staff and Board, the 450 businesses in the BID area and everyone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, the very best for the future. Hastings will always have a special place in my heart. I will miss its quirkiness and its great people immeasurably.”