by Russell Borthwick, Chief Executive, Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce

If I had £1 for every time I’ve had to field lazy comments such as “Union Street’s a disgrace" or "nae what it used to be”, I could fund a complete regeneration programme myself.

Of course it’s not what it used to be. What is and would we even want it to be?

Even before the crippling impact of Covid-19, UK high streets and town centres were already being hit hard by the perfect storm of out-of-town retailing and workplaces, the rise in online shopping and other changes in consumer behaviour.

It’s true that the cocktail of change facing our high streets has been shaken up even further by the pandemic.

Is this only happening here? Of course not - every major town and city in the country and beyond is facing similar challenges and many are in a much worse state than Union Street, but that doesn’t seem to be the narrative from many of the “glass half-empties”’ among us.

Below are just some examples of positive developments for Aberdeen:

  • The Marischal Square development has transformed our civic square.
  • The £34million refurbishment of Aberdeen Art Gallery, which resulted in it being named Museum of the Year and Scotland’s Building of the Year.
  • Provost Skene’s House is now open to the public as a museum to famous Aberdeen folk.
  • The project to bring Union Terrace Gardens back to life is close to completion.
  • Our world-class events strategy will see the Tall Ships return for the first time since 1997.
  • Nuart has been described as the best street art festival on the planet by one of the artists.

But this is only the start.

The new initiative Our Union Street has generated amazing levels of interest.

But as well as commenting, folk need to do something - now it's time to turn words into action. This is going to be a chicken and egg paradox.

Our city centre is not the finished article, but already has a range of amazing venues, restaurants, bars and shops. More so than many peer cities of similar size.

So, instead of complaining from behind keyboards, we need people to commit to go into town more often and frequent the facilities.

In turn, this will help sustain the businesses we already have and help the Our Union Street team to attract new ones. A virtuous circle.

Finely balanced eco-system

Cities are a finely balanced eco-system of retail, culture, hospitality, residential and offices - with people at their heart.

If any of them are out of balance, then the others are likely to fail.

Our Union Street will look at ways to bring people back to the heart of our city. To live. To spend leisure time. And to work.

On this last point, it’s time for companies and our public-sector leaders to encourage their staff back into the office.

Home working was purely an emergency public health measure - not the future - and the missing footfall is crippling the retailers and hospitality businesses who set up in the city centre to serve these office workers.

Decisions and actions taken now will determine whether our city centres - places that should be the beating heart of our communities - recover strongly or become concrete deserts, museums to a bygone age.

Time is of the essence. Let’s make Aberdeen the pilot for re-imaging what the ideal small city centre should look like. And make it happen, together.

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