Horses For Courses At Odiham

by otmg on Thursday 30th March

Roger Mills from Market Trader talks to Peter Fountain about this tiny but vital market.

Pass through Odiham in Hampshire on market day – Tuesday – and you could miss the gaff altogether. Taking up just a few of the high street’s parking bays it’s made up of four or five stalls with a core of fruit and fish. But enthusiastic town manager Peter Fountain is certain it’s an essential tool in the retail survival of this attractive but rather by-passed community.

Peter’s the public face of the Odiham Town Manager Group, established six years ago with the stated aim ensuring ‘a sustainable and vibrant retail and commercial community in the Parish of Odiham for the benefit of residents and local businesses.’

“In Odiham the problem was quite clear”, he recalled. “We were facing real town centre economic decline and everybody knew it. But there was no real connection between interested groups – councils, Odiham Society, church and Retailers – in order to put together solutions. We needed a co-ordinating body and really the Town Manager Group became the facilitator forming the working groups and then trying to get everyone on board. We always had a huge response to what we were trying to do but it was divided. Now everybody is represented.

“I suppose the group has two aims. We want to raise the profile of the town and make it somewhere people want to visit and support – so we have a programme of special events throughout the year including specialist Food Festivals and Farmers Markets.

“But we also want to give existing and potential retailers the tools they need to plan their businesses. Take the retail index we do every month. Shopkeepers simply tell us if they are up or down in percentage terms and we compare that with national figures, giving them some indication of their performance in the context of the whole national economy. We also carry out similar rent and rates reviews too. Business rents here are high and rising and this is a real problem for people trading here”.

Potential

Such activities, according to Peter, seem to be paying off: “We’ve had very little empty retail property here for the six years the project’s been in place and I think that’s probably because potential businesses can come to us for advice.

“It is hard to trade here, overheads are high, and so we tell them the facts of commercial life. It would be wrong of us not to do that and it seems that new businesses are coming in with sensible plans and hopes.”

So how does the market fit in? “We’d had a history of special events which were beginning to raise the profile of the town but we felt we ought to do something on a regular basis. There was also a lack of consumer choice. Most small food shops had gone during the 70s, which meant people were travelling out to Basingstoke, Alton and Farnham.

“Actually I think the Town Manager Group came along just in time to stop things becoming terminal but we had to act pretty quickly. Brutally, we had to draw people to the few shops left, something to keep them here or attract them back. Otherwise what remained could well have vanished.

“So we thought a market could fill some of the gaps in the high street and provide a reason for people to start shopping here aging. But the brief was quite clear. It had to be small – we couldn’t lose parking spaces, which would have defeated the object. We had to have fruit, veg and fish. We wanted quality. As far as day to day running is concerned I was prepared to be steered by the experts – the traders – but we know what we wanted from it all the time.”

Success? “It has worked. It took a year but it has worked. Footfall counts show a steady increase. Ok, Tuesday is not yet the busiest day of the week, it’s too early to say that yet, but it is going that way. The traders must be happy. The core are here every week and the fishmonger comes form Lowestoft!”

Things are going well enough to be repeated in nearby Hartley Wintney partly in response to the same problems: “They’d set up a similar group and there were obvious common denominators and the idea transferred very quickly with the same sort of outcome.”

So could small markets be the salvation for other struggling small towns? “No the two do not automatically go together. All places are different after all. But there are two things I think are essential. First of all you must have the community on board with you – especially local shopkeepers. Second you need the local council standing behind you too. I think it’s essential that they as the responsible body employ someone to be the market manager day to day – no matter which group in town has had the idea.”

Has he any general advice? “Whatever small towns do to raise their profile, be it special events or markets, the core of the effort has to be small scale. The key to street revival is avoiding overkill and that’s what we were looking for here.

“You need variety of course but you must keep local people on your side too.

Published in Market Trader" March 24-30, 2006.

Thank you to Market Trader for allowing us to reproduce this article on the Odiham Community Website. visit their website at www.market-trader.co.uk