Creative arts ventures can give vacant shops a new lease of life - Joe Hall

If you take a walk down your nearest city’s main thoroughfare, whether that be Princes Street in Edinburgh or Union Street in Aberdeen, you may – or may not – be surprised to see the sheer number of closed-down shops and vacant units. Figures published in January by the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) suggested that as many as one in six shops are currently sitting empty.

Two years of the pandemic and an ongoing cost-of-living crisis have had a devastating impact on many areas of the economy and society, none more so than our high streets. With fewer people travelling into the city centre for work and leisure, and with less disposable income, perhaps it is time to consider the alternative ways these units in prime locations could be used.

The good news is that this is already happening in some of our towns and cities. Creative arts and third-sector organisations are now occupying some of the units which would have typically been earmarked for big-name retail brands, bringing a buzz back into centres that are crying out for a new lease of life.

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One example is the Stove Network, an award-winning arts and community project based on Dumfries High Street, which brings local people together through a range of creative activities and events. Similarly, Outer Spaces is working across Scotland to match artists with vacant offices and shops that can be used as temporary studios or exhibition spaces.

Joe Hall, founder of Creative StirlingJoe Hall, founder of Creative Stirling
Joe Hall, founder of Creative Stirling

In November 2018 Creative Stirling got the keys to 44 King Street in the city centre, marking a new chapter not only for the Made in Stirling events hub and store, but also for the area that had seen a decline in the years prior. We wanted to transform the site which was formerly a department store into a thriving community space that would draw artists, makers and local people in. It now has dynamic and accessible workshop, retail, gallery spaces and more.

Throughout the time since opening our doors – lockdowns aside, of course – we have built up a network of around 100 artists. Earlier this year, Made in Stirling was also presented with an award for its Outstanding Contribution to the City Centre, as voted for by local people.

Everything that we do is about generating a positive impact for the community through the arts. This year we have plans to set up a new ceramics studio and are also partnering up with The Old Mill at Killin and expanding our retail arm into further spaces. Ongoing support from Social Investment Scotland (SIS) has helped to turn such ideas into a reality.

Another big indicator of our unit’s positive impact, however, is the effect that we’ve had on the streets around us. Take a walk down King Street now and you can feel the change. In my mind, it’s no coincidence that three new retailers and four eateries have recently joined us in calling the area home.

People sometimes wrongly assume that community arts projects are amateurish, and often that’s what holds funders back, particularly when it comes to supporting physical spaces. But in fact, it’s the opposite. When you have talented creatives involved, the end result is usually well-designed and attractive. This can only be positive for local communities and high streets which are desperately in need of an overhaul.

Joe Hall, founder of Creative Stirling

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