December 23, 2013 6:51 pm

Market town aims to reinvent itself

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Picture by Jon Super for The Financial Times newspaper. Pic fao Marcus Cotton for article by Andy Bounds. Picture shows Nick Johnson, Director of Altrincham Markets Ltd at Altrincham Market, Manchester, England, Thursday Dec. 19, 2013. (Photo/Jon Super 07974 356-333)©FT

Nick Johnson in Altrincham market hall

It is a wintry December night. The Indian restaurateurs are on their doorsteps looking anxiously for trade. Small knots of people hurry home past the pound shops, pawnbrokers and “To let” signs in the precinct. But round a corner in Altrincham’s market hall, lights are burning, music playing and conversation humming.

Nick Johnson, who made his name with Urban Splash, a Manchester company that has redeveloped old industrial buildings, is now trying to do the same in his home town of Altrincham, south-west of Manchester.

The town centre is “on its arse”, he says, in snatched conversation between introducing the next live band and checking that the children’s free film is still running. “I have spent my life regenerating communities, and thought I should do something for the place I live.”

Out-competed by the Trafford Centre 10 minutes’ drive away and a huge Tesco superstore, about a fifth of the shops in the area are empty. It is a familiar tale in town centres across the country.

Mr Johnson and his wife Jenny Thompson, took over running the 140-year-old listed building from Trafford council in September. Their ambition is to mimic the Boqueria market in Barcelona and Columbia Road in east London, as well as Bury, north of Manchester, which attracts visitors from across northern England.

“It is a market town with a charter since 1290,” said Mr Johnson, a visiting professor at Sheffield university. “Fundamental change can start here. It is small but easily done. People pay me £30 a week and our job is to . . . filter the experience to get it exactly right.

“Our strapline is, ‘You can’t get it online. It is handmade and you are dealing directly with the creator.’ ”

The changes mean that the traditional traders selling cheap clothes and sweets will move to a new £300,000 open-air square nearby.

The listed hall and covered market will be renovated at a cost of £500,000. Twelve food and drink units will share a large eating area with a sound system, where live music can be performed and films shown.

Stall numbers have grown from 35 to 120. They include bakers, butchers, chocolatiers and jewellery makers. All are from the northwest, and most of the produce is, too, though Slovenian wine and Portuguese chorizo are on sale.

The aim is to be different rather than cheap, but it could work in this wealthy town of 40,000. Average property prices of £370,000 are above the national average: professional people from Manchester, which is eight miles away, are attracted by the grammar schools. There are good tram and train links and it is close to the “golden triangle” around the Cheshire town of Alderley Edge, which rivals Surrey for wealth.

Noel White, 60, an accountant, was among those browsing and enjoying a drink at a recent Christmas evening market. “This is a great idea,” he said. “I’ve lived here 20 years and the shopping has reduced and reduced. Anything that will bring life back is good.”

Nathan Miller, 22, sells chopping and cheese boards made of Cheshire wood. A kitchen fitter, he set up Bark and Burr when his hours were reduced during the recession. He hopes to go into business full time.

Mr Johnson believes that markets can stimulate town centre regeneration. Sheffield has opened the first new indoor market for 30 years at a cost of £18m. Ashton under Lyne, near Manchester, had a record 7,000 people at the opening of its Christmas market. At Belfast’s Christmas market, trade is up by 40 per cent year on year.

But rather than copy Manchester, which has followed other cities in staging a huge German Christmas market, Alty, as it is known, is focusing on the local.

“Every pound spent here stays here and helps rebuild the economy,” said Mr Johnson.

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