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a blog by Chris Barrow

A tale of two towns (and how to avoid the death of retail)

A fascinating contrast over the weekend.

On Saturday I enjoyed lunch al fresco with Josh Barrow and, despite the wintery conditions, we chatted over artisan food as the crowds walked by.

On Sunday I walked the dogs around Wilmslow with Annie, hoping to enjoy an afternoon "bimble" and a change from our routine.

It's not many years since Altrincham won a rather ignominious award as having the largest volume of vacant retail space of any small town in the UK. A walk through the old precinct was depressing.

In those days, Wilmslow was considered the "posh" town, where the Cheshire set would gravitate to spend money on cars, fashion and furnishings.

Credit to Trafford Borough Council who began the 2013 regeneration of Altrincham when they renovated the abandoned covered market hall and created an award-winning space for families to eat, drink and socialise no matter what the Northern weather.

"Alty Market" has proved such a success that a plethora of cafes, restaurants and bars have grown up around it, even a new Everyman cinema. The town centre now buzzes at the weekend and that has had a knock-on effect for the retail trade.

The infamous precinct was reclad to make it look more modern and, even though House of Fraser continues its longest death scene in history, small business is, in the main, prospering.

Wilmslow yesterday was depressing.

In spite of the Aston Martin garage that has occupied the main road into town for many years, with it's £159,995 cars on the forecourt ("oh - thank goodness - if it had been £160,000 I couldn't have afforded it"), there are vacant signs galore, some long-standing occupants now gone.

Yet another House of Fraser relic dominates the high street. The Rex cinema has reopened after years of neglect and alternative use but there's just nothing to do around it.

Wilmslow precinct has now taken over as the depressing walk, the pavements were largely deserted, many of the shops closed, those open occupied by bored assistants staring out to the wind-swept streets.

Trafford has shown that we no longer go into small towns to shop - we can do that online, in retails parks and malls or in the biggest city centres.

Small towns can only compete if they provide us with multi-generational places to socialise.

If I had a dental practice in Altrincham, I'd open at weekends.

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