To revive a dying High Street, a British landlord offered free rent

For two decades, Stephen White has been in a drug addiction and rehab circuit. In 2006, during his time working at the recovery centre, he learned how to restore furniture, a skill that led him to an unexpected place: running his own shop in Poole, a seaside town in southwest England.

Mr. Wyatt, 46, is among a handful of recipients of extraordinary experience in real estate and urban renewal. His shop, Restored Retro, is one of 10 businesses given a free two-year lease on an empty storefront on a small shopping street in Poole called Kingland Crescent.

The offer came from the property’s owner, Britain’s largest asset manager Legal & General Investment Management, which has been struggling to revive a near-derelict shopping street next to a mall, in an unstable economy still reeling from the pandemic.

“It’s been a huge learning curve for them and for us,” Mr. White said. “I did not take such responsibility.”

The rent-free period, which ended in April, changed not only the lives of Mr. White and many other small business owners, but also the street, which now sees a steady stream of foot traffic in an area many locals used to avoid. Even the adjacent shopping center is bucking the national trend, with more visitors now than in 2019.

Half of the original ten companies that offered space on Kingland Crescent are still there, and the companies that left were quickly replaced by new local companies ready to pay the rent. There is a sense of momentum building in Paul’s shift.

“Paul has become a destination again,” Mr. White said.

Poole is only two miles from some of the most expensive coastal real estate in the country, but downtown has been stuck in a rut. The mall had dark, empty spaces, and part of the city’s larger shopping district was trapped in the past, with old brands forgotten in livelier places.

The Kingland Crescent shake-up began during pandemic lockdowns as Britons bemoan the death of their beloved high streets, comparable to American high streets. Their survival has been a priority for the government, which has announced billions of dollars in grants to revitalize them.

Recently, however, the government has been consumed by other crises, including the highest rates of inflation in four decades, rapidly rising food prices, and rising mortgage payments, which amount to a deep cost-of-living crisis.

“Retail in England has been in trouble for a long time,” said Anthony Brack, senior analyst at The Cities Centre, a think-tank. Even before the pandemic, “there was an oversupply of retail space, particularly in places with less successful economies.”

He added that many high streets need a major makeover if they hope to survive the shift away from the in-store shopping of the large national retail chains that have dominated them.

There are encouraging signs of progress. Fewer shops closed in Britain last year than in the previous year, and some of the devoid of department stores have found new life as entertainment centers with go-karts or planned accommodation. Foot traffic on major streets across the country was about 5 percent higher in June than a year ago, although still below pre-pandemic levels.

“There are public streets that have been destroyed,” said Mark Robinson, chair of the High Streets Task Force, a body set up by the government. Likewise, there are places where it will get worse. But overall, we can really look forward to having been through worse, and I honestly don’t think people talk about the death of Main Street anymore.”

Major streets across the country encounter varying fortunes. Paul’s move improved after risks were taken by Legal & General Investment Management, which owns about 36 billion pounds (about $43 billion) in homes, retail, offices and other real estate. Other small main streets benefited from residents staying close to home to work and socialize.

But many others, especially in larger towns or cities, still struggle with empty stores and closed outposts of national brands.

The differences are evident in Bournemouth, a larger town a few miles east of Poole with a large student population. Economic prosperity varies widely across the region, but average incomes in Bournemouth, Poole and surrounding towns were nearly 7 per cent lower than the national average, according to official statistics for 2022.

Three department stores have closed in Bournemouth, and the exit of large retail chains has left many streets with empty storefronts. Two years ago, the town had ambitious plans to fill the void, but they were slow to come to fruition. A major success was the reopening of the former Debenhams store as Poppies, which contained a beauty parlour, café and kiosks for local businesses.

Paul Kenfig, who runs the city’s Business Improvement District, said four other large locations (two former department stores and a cinema) are in the early stages of redevelopment.

“I was encouraged by the fact that there are plans for all of them, but there is an issue with pacing,” he said.

Progress is slow in Bournemouth, but in Poole, Kingland Crescent has become a nexus for independent businesses. The fix provided a dose of modernization with the arrival of an Instagram-friendly botanical shop, a coffee shop with a roaster in the back and a gin bar, among others. And free rent allowed them to grow rapidly.

For the owner, the software was a bet in the long run. Matt Soffer, who leads retail research at Legal, said providing free rent to entrepreneurs, even those with no formal work experience, was part of its strategy to make its properties more resilient in the face of an ever-changing economy and less dependent on large national retailers. and public investment management.

“We’re not doing this just to do something nice for the people of Paul,” he added. “We’re also doing this because we believe that over the long term, all of these initiatives will create cash flow.”

Prior to moving to Kingland Crescent, Mr. White’s furniture restoration business was a humble operation. Sometimes, he would paint the furniture in his garden and sell the pieces on eBay.

Since opening his shop, he has sold more than a thousand items. He specializes in restoring mid-century items, such as a sideboard by Danish designer Ib Kofod-Larsen and a dresser by British design firm Archie Shine. In March, about the time the rent payments began, Mr Wyatt doubled the shop space, taking an adjoining vacant lot in association with Guy Blades, star of the BBC series ‘The Repair Shop’.

Three doors down from Mr. White is Wild Roots, a plant store owned by Hope Dean, 29, who was laid off from her event management job early in the pandemic. A few months later, I got a space on Kingland Crescent, which is now a quiet haven of green space. She employs six people, and her company has three subsidiaries: a retail store, a corporate plant design service and a plant care service.

“It feels like proper business now,” Ms. Dean said.

A chic record store hosting live music nights, a jeweler with finely-sculpted titanium pieces, and a clothing store that previously had no online presence have recently joined the list. They each have to pay rent, but several of them said they still got a good deal.

The changes to Kingland Crescent have flowed into the adjacent shopping center which is also owned by Legal & General. On the deserted upper floors of the mall, the owner has placed an NHS-run diagnostic centre, adult education center and co-working space. Market stalls are open several days a week on the ground floor, along with space for free events and services, such as daycares, craft fairs, and historical exhibits.

But Kingland Crescent tenants still face challenges. Their leases are renewable in about a year, meaning their future is uncertain. Renters say foot traffic can be unpredictable, and there is little other nightlife, which is a problem for a bar.

“Paul was our pilot,” said Denizer Ibrahim, who leads retail strategy at Legal & General. After two years of data collection, the owner is thinking about what worked and what could be replicated elsewhere. But she doesn’t expect to offer free rent again.

Mr Ibrahim said the strategy was to end the high street ‘cookie-cutting’ of a few years ago and instead curate a space with a diverse mix of international and local businesses in retail and other services.

This range of use of retail space, he said, “would never have been talked about without Kingland”.