There are one or two pleasurable duties associated with being Chairman of The Ipswich Society, as well as a couple of difficult challenges. For example, I occasionally record a piece for the talking newspaper, Sound-On.
My Ipswich Icons articles are frequently included using volunteer readers - whose clarity of voice and intelligible diction bring life to what can occasionally be nothing more than a list of facts with dates.
Editor Tim Pennick asked me to think about an essay for the summer edition and we decided to cover shops and shopping in Ipswich. There has been so much negative comment recently one could start believing that town centre trading has collapsed, that the majority of shops have closed and that certain streets have become a wasteland of charity, betting and pawn shops.
To add credence to the piece we decided to interview Mike Sodhaindo, manager of Sailmakers shopping centre, Nardine Weatherley of The Buttermarket Centre and Mike Young who runs the fish stall on the market. Mike is the spokesperson for market traders and has a clear measure of trading conditions, footfall as it varies throughout the day and across the week and has some clear views as to the locations in which the market will work, and those in which it won't.
There is talk of moving the market to Lloyds Avenue; the first 75 yards are claimed to be flat, or at least as flat as the Cornhill, but footfall is almost non-existent, to Queen Street which Mike Young suggests is too narrow and has space only for a limited number of stalls, or on to Giles Circus: the wrong use for this important public space.
Mike Sodhaindo of Sailmakers shopping centre gave a clear picture of what the recent £4 million investment had done for the old Tower Ramparts (built 1984): bigger*, brighter with longer sight lines (*apparently bigger: achieved by removing the clutter along the centre of the mall, including the feature glass-sided lift). New shops have brought additional customers, an average 7% increase in trading figures.
There is a much greater investment currently in the Buttermarket Centre: a reported £35 million - although I suspect this includes the £9.5 million purchase price - in conversion from retail to mainly leisure use. The Butter Market (street) entrance will remain retail with New Look and TK Maxx providing the anchor stores.
The St Stephens Lane entrance will be predominantly restaurants with Wagamama, Prezzo and Five Guys promised. New escalators will whisk visitors to the first floor bowling alley, gym and further restaurants (nine in all) also the box office for the twelve screen Empire Cinemas. When the centre opened in 1984 the Owen Owen department store occupied four floors. Since moving downstairs within the centre TK Maxx are only using the ground floor; the upper floors are being converted into the cinemas.
Clearly the centre is not as busy whilst this building work is proceeding - you cannot currently walk through the centre - but the finished project should bring a welcome boost to the late afternoon and evening economy of Ipswich.
So to the main point of the recording: Ipswich is doing fine, changing but still reasonably healthy, certainly no worse than numerous other towns of comparable demographics. The town centre has always been a sea of change: some independent shops have gone, the car showrooms have moved to the outskirts, the furniture shops are now on the retail parks. The only notable returns are the food shops which are making a comeback as we abandon the big weekly shop.
John Norman, Chairman