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In the market for a Big revival; Queen of Shops Mary Portas visited Market Rasen recently to find out how PS98,000 of Government funding has helped reinvigorate the high street. Reporter JAMES DUNN spoke to Mary and locals about progress in the town since it became a Portas Pilot Project...

Byline: JAMES DUNN

nce upon a time, Market Rasen was known across the Ocounty as a centre of commerce. Stallholders came from all over Lincolnshire to sell the finest and freshest produce from one of Britain's greatest farming regions. However, in recent years, the market faded until the cobbled streets were home to just a few permanent stalls and shops were suffering too.

That was until last year, when the Market Rasen Business Improvement Group (Mr Big), with help from West Lindsey District Council (WLDC), launched a bid to become one of the Portas Pilot Project towns.

The bid was a success and the town was awarded PS98,000 of Government cash to help revive its high street - with the help of Mary's expertise. The premise was that this regeneration would lead to wider benefits in the town.

"The high street is the heart of a town, just like the heart of a body - if it is healthy and vibrant, everything else can operate better," she explained.

Market Rasen is one of the few towns in the country to maintain an interesting mix of independent stores. It has very few of the huge high street brands that draw people to big city shopping centres, however, it's antiquity - with cobbled streets and wooden shop fronts - may yet prove to be its greatest strength.

Mary added: "Ten years ago, people complained about clone towns - all the shops were the same in a different location. That is not a problem here. This was originally a market town and maintaining that character is a big priority. It was famous for selling all the fantastic local produce and can be again, which is what sets it apart from other areas and supermarkets.

"Every high street is unique and different in its own way - that is the beauty of them.

The high street has to be built on the local needs, which gives us a huge opportunity - but we need to get the right mix.

"People in this area have a passion for what we are doing and a savvy understanding of what the area needs.

"Market Rasen is in the top three of all the high streets I've visited as part of the scheme.

We only started this project six months ago and I'm already very impressed. However, we still have a long way to go. It takes most businesses three years before they get to where they want to be."

Since the project started, Mr Big has spent about PS10,000 of the money.

John Matthew, one of the directors of Mr Big, says that the number of empty shops has gone down from 24 to six in the last year. Two new stores have been set up, manned by a mix of paid staff and volunteers.

One of them, the Big Corner Shop, was funded by a High Street Development Grant, from WLDC, and provides an outlet for local artists and crafters to display and sell their work.

James Hay-Barr, a volunteer and exhibitor, said: "This place has become a real hub for the art community. It brings people together and gives us a chance to show the public our art. I have sold three of my artistic photography pieces already."

The other store is Greens of Lincolnshire, which sells local produce and preserves, grown and made by people from the area. Items currently on offer, including Lincolnshire purple sprouting broccoli and the horn melon.

Volunteer Olwin Williamson works in the store for free.

"I enjoy the work - it gives me something to do and we all have a good chat here," she said.

The store even prepared a special hamper of local produce for Mary - including a specially-made Portas quiche.

Mary said: "I'll be eating it all - probably on the train on the way home. I'm not sure what is in the Portas quiche but I'm looking forward to finding out."

Mary said she was "humbled" by the hard work of passion in the town and "impressed" with the progress so far. However, she said that filling the Square Bar, an empty premises owned by the Co-op, was a big priority.

"It is an important location in between both ends of the High Street which helps to bring them together," she said. "Once we can get someone to fill that space, we could really start to deliver higher footfall."

It was an idea that resonated with Richard Scuffham, who runs Forget Me Not florist with his wife Gill - next to Greens of Lincolnshire.

Mr Scuffham said: "Without people on the High Street, we can't sell flowers. Our shop is not directly part of the scheme but if footfall increases, everyone benefits. This can only be a good thing."

To find out more about activities in the town, visit www.marketrasenguide.co.uk/wordpress

CAPTION(S):

Mary with volunteer director of community arts and culture, Sarah Lamalle.

Mary meets the team at Greens, from left, manager Pamela Clarkson, deputy manager Danny Bates and volunteers Jennifer Rowbotham and Rachel Quinn.

Mary with members of the Mr Big Project.

Mary chats to Sue Greenwood of Rasen Hardware, centre, and Sarah Lamballe.

Sarah Lamballe, volunteer director for community arts and culture for the Mr Big Project, points out where Bernie Taupin wrote the record Saturday Nights Alright For Fighting to the delight of Mary Portas.

Delight for Mary as she is presented with a bouquet of flowers from Richard Scuffham of Forget Me Not Florist.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 1, 2013
Words:909
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