Union Street revival gathers pace as 65 new businesses register interest

12/03/2024
Union Street

MORE than 60 businesses have registered an interest in setting-up on Union Street thanks to a joint-effort by the public and private sectors.

A new report has revealed that the Granite Mile has finally turned a corner, thanks to a major partnership between Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeen Inspired, Our Union Street and Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce.

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It is now being proposed that financial grants for equipment and a pop-up test space for entrepreneurs are added to efforts to rejuvenate the street in 2024.

A protracted oil and gas downturn followed by a pandemic left Union Street with one of the highest shop vacancy rates in the country. An emergency summit was called in November 2022 when the number of vacant ground floor units peaked at 47.

However, a major collaborative effort has turned the tide, and today the number of vacant sops has fallen to 37, with the number vacant and available to rent believed to have fallen below 30.

The street now boasts some of the most generous incentives in the UK – with grants to fit-out units and up to two years rent and rates free where the premises has been empty for more than five years, subject to landlord support.

A paper going before Aberdeen city councillors tomorrow has outlined the progress to date, and how it plans to build upon the momentum.

Grant scheme

Since launching last summer, Aberdeen City Council’s Empty Shops Grant Scheme has attracted 65 expressions of interest.

The scheme offers grants of up to £35,000 where the money is match-funded by new tenants or landlords, and is designed to bring empty unit back into use.

The £500,000 fund was supposed to be spent over two years but has been such a success that the council has agreed to add another £500,000 to the scheme and extend it to 2026.

In a report to councillors, Jen Lawrie, a senior project officer in the City Development team at the council, said grant funding had helped four shops open already: a fashion boutique at 226 Union Street, a coffee takeaway at 474 Union Street, a watch retailer at 132 Union Street and a restaurant and takeaway at 118 Union Street.

To date, the £140,000 of public money which has been spent to date has leveraged in £1million of private investment.

Since the start of 2024, nine further applications have been moved forward, which will bring the total number of grants awarded to £455,000.

Going forward, it is proposed that the scheme be extended to to include business equipment where it is specific and integral to the new business operations, and costs for basement and first floor works will also be eligible if it helps bring a ground floor back into use.

The report to council also estimates that city centre footfall rose by 17.8% during 2023, although it still lags behind pre-pandemic levels.

Spectra and the Christmas Market boosted average weekend footfall figures of 156,835 and 125,694 respectively, compared to the average weekend footfall in 2023 of 117,409.

This programme is enhanced by Aberdeen Inspired’s Foodie Fortnight twice annually and NuArt.

The Chamber’s Ultimate Masterclass Festival – which is bringing big names such as Steven Bartlett, Elizabeth Day, Davina McCall and Louis Theroux to Aberdeen City Centre – has also been credited with having an impact.

The festival resumes at the Music Hall tomorrow night for an evening with football legend and entrepreneur Gary Neville.

Additional efforts

Looking forward, the council report says it will work with Marks and Spencer “to explore options and secure a buyer/alternative use for the St Nicholas store they are vacating”.

The local authority is also exploring how it can provide pop-up pilot retail space for entrepreneurs and SMEs to test products, market demand and develop business skills and resilience.

The council will also support Aberdeen Inspired’s work to find a use for upper floors, and it will also continue to support Our Union Street, led by entrepreneur and former FTSE100 chief executive Bob Keiller.

The community-led, not-for-profit organisation is seeking to restore pride and prosperity to Union Street and has five key focus areas:

  • Brighten the street: This is about getting the street clean then bringing extra colour and interest to it.
  • Fill the units: Create and market a compelling offer then attract great businesses to occupy them and bring them back to life.
  • Use the space: Use the empty shop windows as a fascinating and often changing street gallery that attracts people to the street and brightens up empty retail units.
  • Tell the story: Creating a single reliable source of information about what’s happening in the city centre and creating lots of attractions and events.
  • Engage the people: Recruiting and deploying the volunteers required to deliver the four action areas above.

It has been set-up by Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, Aberdeen Inspired, Aberdeen City Council and Opportunity North East, with additional support from Shell, which recently relocated to the street. AB15 Limited – owned and run by Mr Keiller and his business partner Derrick Thomson – is also funding the organisation, and both businessmen have committed to running the organisation free of charge.

You can read the full council paper here. It will be discussed by councillors on the Finance & Resources Committee tomorrow.

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