With thanks to our interviewer Tiffany Elliot , @Eloquentparrot :
On a windy Tuesday afternoon, I had the privilege of visiting the CH1 Chester BID offices and meeting Rita Waters, the departing BID Chief Executive.
Over a cup of tea, I talked to Rita about her journey into BID from her time in Liverpool Council, through Chester Renaissance and leading BID from idea to inception to where they sit today.
Rita, despite not living in Chester, has a clear fondness for the city, but can’t understand why, in her view, people post negative things about it. She also comments on @ShitChester itself, going from its inception as an account that may have been considered as pointing out the negatives, through to its more positive and journalistic and style today.
Rita started her career in the private sector, moving on to Liverpool BID which went through an area extension and one of the most successful re-BIDs in the UK. She started off at Chester Renaissance in 2008, and ultimately moved on to work implementing BID in Chester in 2014 following a successful ballot. As recently announced , Rita intends to move on in February 2016 and despite my asking, she keeps the cards close to her chest and states she’s moving back into the charitable sector.
Rita feels that there was “no coherent plan that could set the direction of investment in the City” when she worked at Renaissance, leading to the release of the One City, One Plan for Chester after works completed during her tenure. In that plan was the desire from retailers, both national and independent stating the need to set up a Business Improvement District, with the concept initially coming from the US and now with over 200 in the UK. Rita says it’s “a proven business model” and tells me that she’s often challenged on “who voted her in”. She goes on to tell me “it’s a democratic vote, we appreciate not everybody in the area votes and everybody has the opportunity when eligible to vote”.
Thoughts on Chester…
“I love this city, and everything we do we try for the betterment of the City. People post something online or an article in the newspaper and for weeks afterwards people write backwards and forwards about it. I’ve never known a City like it”
Rita comments that she finds it unusual in comparison with other cities, Chester is very vocal in its argument about things and that there is a knock on effect of online comments. She also said she’s had discussions with others about when BID have looked to implement something positive, how there are comments afterwards that draw away from the positive attempts they make.
During my visit, Rita keeps stating positivity around BID. There are posters adorning the offices about positive comments they receive from people and the fact they won’t be drawn into discussion backwards and forwards about issues and decisions made and that all they’re trying to do is “the right thing”.
When asked about the role of BID, it’s all about “bringing people in, spending more money in the City and ensuring people have a great experience of the City”, and when asked about BID impact, it’s nothing but positive.
Early into our conversation, we discuss the Coke Truck controversy. Rita defends the position of BID bringing the truck to the City. Rita stands by her comments in the press recently that BID did not move the Winter Watch parade and the decision was made by Cheshire West and Chester council. Rita mentions the work BID took part in to invest £10,000 in the recent Christmas parade with 15,000 people attending last week in comparison with negativity around BID’s engagement in community events, with me seeing Russell Kirk leaving the BID offices as I arrive.. Despite the glitch with the lights turning on, she feels it was incredibly successful, with any notion that BID don’t support community events being wrong. She states her marketing and events section of the BID business plan helps with community events, including recent investment into Grosvenor Museum’s upgraded AV equipment, allowing the museum to show films over Christmas, already booked out despite not going to press.
Commenting on the role of BID in Chester…
“I want to translate footfall into spend. Nobody wants to go to a city with loads of empty shops. All we do, we do with the best intentions. Bring people to the City, increase dwell time, increasing spend. If we can do that, we have the potential of having a fantastic City.”
Interestingly, Rita says “we’re not going to get involved in debates about public health, sugary drinks and all that…we cannot get involved as we run the risk of offending one party in favour of another” and she tells me that they approached many other places who’d had the truck, telling me one site had increased trade by 147%, so “why wouldn’t you want the opportunity to have the same?”
I asked her about the recent Freedom of Information request. Coca Cola wouldn’t allow BID to release details of them having the truck and it seems BID approached Coca Cola a couple of months ago following a blanket email from them rather than the rushed and pushed event it’s made out to be and waited for Coca Cola to respond and agree to the visit. Rita remains tight lipped…
“As I’ve said throughout, we work in partnership with Cheshire West. Do not believe everything you read in the press.”
She goes on to comment that all you get from a Freedom of Information request is emails, stating again, they work in partnership with Cheshire West. She won’t give anything away, so I end with…
“So you, in your view, approached them at the appropriate time?”
“Yes. We approached them to discuss the possibility of having the Coca Cola truck in the City at the appropriate time”
“Primarily, it ticks our boxes of the marketing and events plan, so it brings in people and brings in trade”
Speaking of controversy, we discuss the PSPO, which was feverishly responded to, with many strong outcomes, including the planned inception of a busking Code of Conduct in the City. Rita commented to me that aside from the provision of homeless services in the City, as BID, she must look to represent the members having to suffer from anti social behaviour and homeless people sleeping in business doorways. As formal recommendations have not yet been released, we didn’t discuss further how BID will be involved but it’s clear from her response, she feels that she had and still has BID members best interests at heart, telling me that consultations attended by her in respect of the PSPO were to take it forward for BID members who’d commented on such issues.
Positively, we move to Chester Unlocked, (developed in conjunction with Big Heritage), of which Rita holds in high regard. It’s obvious from her speech that Rita wants Chester Unlocked to grow, not as an event but as a permanent fixture of Chester promoting itself, its heritage and its history.
“This year we had 30 pieces on display. Next year, I want 100 pieces, moving to 200 and onwards. I’m told Grosvenor Museum have artefacts running into the millions. We should all be able to see that and appreciate what we’ve got as a City…”
Throughout my time with Rita, she speaks passionately about engagement and what BID can do for the City and its members. I challenged her on a survey I completed with local retailers, both independent and national. 100% were aware of BID and 60% had negative comments including :No impact from BID, Concerns about how the money received from BID levies is spent, advertising not happening, low profile after inception, not supporting independents ( the infamous tweet about 17 Chester Costas), “BID want to sterilise the city” and disappointment at the movement of Winter Watch Parade
Rita responds fervently and strongly to claims that BID don’t provide advertising, telling me businesses within BID have the opportunity to feature on a Shopping in Chester site with pictures, opening times and what’s available, all for free. But there’s been little take up…
She responds to my survey results by telling me that BID is a two way street with communication, she feels that with the staff, the social media they have and the new Ambassadors, there is ample opportunity for people to get involved with them. There’s clear disappointment from Rita as she mentions that as an example, hand delivered letters were sent to people who had Christmas trees last year with only a few responding and getting trees again, despite me receiving complaints they weren’t offered. There’s even some spare in the office!
Are BID value for money? Rita couldn’t agree more – with one of the lowest percentage levies (you can go from 1-5%) in UK BIDS and with the available marketing and events they offer as well as support to lower business bills such as energy and mobile phones, Rita believes BID can do a lot for the City.
Investing £600,000 into the City Centre this year, she queries still why people are negative about private sector investment in the City as she hasn’t experienced it elsewhere and re-iterates the desire for BID to become successful.
When asked about what Chester does well, she quickly answers that Chester shows itself off well but doesn’t ask for enough. With opportunities to find investment from other sources, she feels other cities such as Liverpool are eager to get their hands up to ask and suggests Chester could do the same to help improve its potential.
I got chance to meet the new Ambassadors team, currently in training to not only provide guidance to visitors in the City with help to find out more about where to go, to engage with BID members and be a visible presence on behalf of the BID but also, as they’re GPS tracked and I’m told walk 6-8 miles a day, reporting on any issues that can be sent onto the council to fix such as pavements, lighting or anything else.
As we came onto the end of our time together, we talked about what the future holds, not only for Chester but also her…
We discuss development of the City, and I touched on Northgate Development, which raises a smile and “about time!”. Rita thinks the Northgate Development is great, but it needs to be pitched at the right level to benefit the City, with appropriate businesses, and leisure and retail to compliment the City, much like the new business quarter by the train station, which she feels will invigorate the area without causing any additional pollution or adding any additional pressure on the city’s infrastructure, all whilst increasing the draw of business into the City. We further discuss the Re:New project and how she’d like to see businesses in the City toughing it out as she’s asked them to, if BID members from October to this time next year when Re:New is due to open so that Chester can become a late night destination for shoppers. She hopes that there will this lead to an increase in trade for restaurants and other food based businesses as well as boosting footfall in the city.
On the Northgate Development…
“I saw some of the very early designs when I came to Chester. It has to be in keeping with the City. Chester has to develop and future proof. It needs to meet current demand and allow for future demand as well as take into account changes.”
“I want every single business in this City to be happy with what we’re doing, feel they’re getting value for money and to still be here in ten years time.”
She also states that BID has an open door policy, and it’s like there’s some disappointment at the complacency and lack of engagement from those she’s there for as she feels that the emails, the hand delivered letters and the visits to the BID members businesses are all vital to BID’s engagement and success in the City, for both the BID team and the members.
So what of her successor ?
Rita wants a BID manager who will carry on the good work she’s seen so far and continue to implement the plans and business plan they have to help all the BID members in the City strive to success.
On leaving BID…
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to…but I will miss BID and I will miss Chester. It’s been an amazing seven years. I’ve got things that I’ve delivered, with the team, with Renaissance that I am so proud of. There will be people in this City I will be very sorry to leave. I’d like to think that everything carries on developing and growing and the BID goes from strength to strength because BIDs are really a very important tool for any City.”
As they say…we shall see! Thanks to Rita and the BID team for their warm welcome. Follow @eEloquentparrot on twitter