TRADERS in Newbiggin are celebrating landing a government cash boost intended to help them tempt shoppers and tourists back in greater numbers.
The Northumbrian town saw off competition from more than 370 cities and towns to be named as one of 12 pilot projects for an initiative being backed by retail guru Mary Portas.
The seaside destination was named one of the first Portas pilots after business owners and residents joined together to submit a bid outlining how they would work together and the various plans they are considering.
A total of £1.2m is being split between the 12 pilot schemes, with Newbiggin in line for £94,300.
The town’s bid was led by Newbiggin Traders’ Association with support from Newbiggin Town Council, Northumberland County Council, Bernicia, Blyth Valley Arts and Leisure and residents.
It now plans to spend the money on better branding for the town to draw people in, improving local transport and hosting pop-up shops.
Latest figures reveal 36 per cent of the town’s retail premises are lying empty despite funding being spent on improvements including a new beach, Newbiggin Maritime Centre and public artwork such as the Sean Henry’s Couple statue in the bay.
Former cafés, pubs, takeaways and other outlets are among those boarded up, with visitors and residents suggesting a wider range of shops – including clothes outlets – could help bring people in, as well as improved toilet facilities.
Traders are delighted at the news, announced as nearby Lynemouth’s Rio Tinto Alcan plant is shutting down, putting hundreds of people on the dole.
Crystal Hinds, manager at the maritime centre and secretary of the traders’ association, helped draw up the application along with association chairman Norma Thompson, and they produced a supporting video to go on YouTube in a matter of weeks.
The association was praised for its application and innovative ideas.
Crystal said: “It will allow us to put Newbiggin on the map and invest in projects which will open up the town regionally and nationally.
“For too long, the town has been a hidden gem.
“To be a thriving town in the future, the traders’ association understands that it needs to creatively tackle the problems we face. The Mary Portas funding will help us start to do this.
“We’re getting just under £100,000. That won’t completely transform the town centre but will allow us to test out some of the ideas and improve publicity to raise the profile of Newbiggin.”
Among their initial ideas are to improve signage to the town, create pop-up shops and hold exhibitions in empty retail units, allow businesses to test the market by setting up for a couple of months and lay on better public transport, especially from the caravan parks on either side of the town.
Crystal added: “We want to encourage businesses to work together.
“We’ve had lots of residents come out and say it’s great, and they want to get involved as well.”
Norma, owner of the Trinkets, Treats and Treasures gift shop for ten years and association chairman since February, said: “We are absolutely thrilled with the news.
“We are really looking forward to getting people into and around the town through our innovative ideas for transport.
“We’ve got an ailing economy and just lost Alcan. There is no industry in the area now, although we’re hoping the new business park on the outskirts of Ashington will help us.
“Hopefully, this money and raising the profile will encourage businesses to come here. We need to fill these empty shops.
“We’ve got the tourism industry from Sandy Bay Caravan Park, the maritime centre, and the new promenade, but we need people to stay and shop here.
“We might get new ideas from Mary Portas that we can build on.
“I’m born and bred here. We’ve now got outsiders who work here and are very passionate about Newbiggin, and I’m pleased with the community support we have now.”
She added that although the town already had an arts trail, entertainment programme and sports centre, more was needed to get people to stay there longer.
Edwina Phillipson, owner of the Barbers 2 hair salon, said: “This funding is going to help enormously.
“Like so many seaside towns, Newbiggin has been struggling, but there is a buzz around the town now.
“The people have to get together now and work out how best to spend this money.”
Mark Larkin is the newest trader in town, setting up Larkin’s Pet and Angling Supplies earlier this year and recently moving into larger premises.
Originally from Kent, he moved to the town nine years ago with his wife so she could be closer to her family.
Mark said: “If we can’t keep people shopping locally, then more and more shops are going to be boarded up.
“We can’t afford to keep going if people aren’t shopping locally.
“We need to think of ways of getting people into the village.
“The new seafront has made a difference to the village, but this funding is the biggest news we’ve had.
“It has helped build up the community spirit. Hopefully, it’ll help bring people in.”
Residents and visitors believe new toilets, a wider range of shops and even a swimming pool would help boost trade.
Parker Scott, of nearby Stakeford, said: “I come here on a weekly basis. It’s a nice place to come.
“If you have more businesses, it creates more visitors.
“It’s a shame the Metro doesn’t come up here, even though the railway lines are still in place.
“I used to come up here as a child on the train.”
Silla Moran, born and bred in Newbiggin but now living in Ashington, visits the village at every opportunity for old time’s sake but says visitors need more things to spend their money on.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take to bring people back to Newbiggin,” she said.
“We’ve got a gorgeous beach, but I don’t see anyone on it.
“Newbiggin is a lovely little place and is picking up a bit, but there’s no clothes shops here. It’s what women spend the most money on.”
Retail guru Portas, nicknamed the Queen of Shops, said: “I’ve been deeply touched by both the quality and creativity of the bids and the momentum Britain’s first town teams have generated in just a few short weeks.
“It is now clearer to me than ever that Britain wants its town centres revitalised, and the energy and accountability for that needs to rest with the people who live and do business there.”
As well as the money, Newbiggin will also benefit from a dedicated contact point for advice, free support from retail industry leaders and Portas’s own team.
n To see what the traders think of the news, click on the video above...