Katrina Kerr is the recently appointed Chair of Chester BID (Business Improvement District). She spoke to us about the role of the BID particularly during and after the Covid crisis as well as her aspirations for Chester.
Katrina, originally from London has lived in Chester for over 20 years. Her previous job was CEO at Marketing Cheshire from 2013-18 , followed by a period working for various agencies in Manchester. She was approached by the BID a year ago and asked to join the Board to assist with marketing. Following the departure of the existing Chair Katrina was appointed.
“The Board is made up of up to 18 people” says Katrina. ” At least half of which have to be BID levy payers. The Board is responsible for the good governance and financial management of the BID. The BID receives money via a legal levy and that money has to be spent in the best interests of the levy payers.” The BID is funded by businesses within the Bid area with a rateable value over £18,000pa.
“Others are on the Board because they have a particular expertise in town or are there because they represent a particular business or sector. Carl Critchlow, manages the BID on a day to day basis, he is the frontline manager.” The other BID staff consist of marketing manager Emily Ghazarian and the 2 welcome ambassadors, Monica and Luka. “They are our eyes and ears and they tell levy payers what is going on , they also feedback to us, and talk to people on the street.
“About 6 or 7 years ago I remember saying to my husband “if things don’t pick up round here lets go somewhere else”. The council announced Storyhouse and I think that’s been a big catalyst to move the city on its axis. People are starting to think now, theres business to be done around the cultural sector, around the foodie sector, and around the idea of independent business. Its great to have the big chains, but the more variety you get from the independent sector the better. ”
The 3 main roles of BID according to Katrina are firstly, keeping in touch with levy payers and finding out what their main concerns are, on a regular basis. “It’s not going to be the same thing all year round. This year for example Christmas will be very different….It may be that you have to say to them that things aren’t in our power- its an issue for the council or the police, but at least you’ve conveyed their anxieties.”
The second role is promoting and championing Chester at every possible opportunity. The third role is to spend the money on things that make a difference. “Currently we can’t organise big events but we can do small things that will help people, business support or encouraging people to work together, try and encourage a bit of philanthropy. Philanthropy’s not a big thing in Chester yet, the membership scheme at Storyhouse has really opened that up. We have to show people that theres not always public money for things, if you come up with a good argument people might give you some money for it. The other thing is to maintain eye contact with people and not hide in an office somewhere. Another current focus is a “How To” guide for prospective independent businesses which is targeted for an October launch.
Katrina says that BID worked closely with the council on the reopening of the city, securing free parking in collaboration with the racecourse and the #chestertogether campaign on social media. In a letter sent to all BID members recently she comments that the “impacts of the pandemic have been cruel and potentially enduring. Some businesses will not come back and others need help to re-establish themselves”. With over 25 businesses folding since lockdown, including some established names such as Coffee Mill, Mad Hatters and Sofa workshop, the need to support the city centre has never been more urgent.
However with 10 new businesses opened, there is hope. Katrina has been carrying out fact finding missions to independents in the city, praising a recent visit to ARK gallery on Commonhall street as one example. Driving traffic to the rows is an ongoing project: ” People like Flower Cup have queues outside, yet there are other places where its pretty deserted up there.” BID are keeping in touch with the council over the Rows Heritage Action Zone project, with Eastgate row already seeing an improvement following the arrival of new businesses Shrub and Pictura. “Bright people with good ideas are doing well. The market has been brilliant for example” Of the increasing number of empty units she says more can be done to encourage landlords.
“They will see that there are deals to be done. Grosvenor are on the Bid Board and they are facilitating the new boutique hotel on the corner of Bridge St and Watergate St, the Council is another big one – letting their smaller units in town will regenerate certain areas. I’ve heard several stories about landlords who have been really great and supportive over Covid. People have set a good example and we shouldn’t forget that.”
Of the challenges facing Chester, the eternal complaint is the cost of parking. However Katrina is defiant on this point “Over COVID the racecourse have set a good example of good citizenship. They realised they couldn’t monetise their asset, but they could help other people who were struggling. Instead of trying to claw their money back they have made their car parks the cheapest so now you can park on Linenhall car park for 45p an hour (10 hours £4.50) and even the racecourse carpark is only 5 quid.
“If anyone thinks that that is expensive compared to comparable cities like York and other business centres like Manchester or Liverpool, I’m not so sure. Less than half of the provision in Chester is under Council control and commercial operators such as NCP charge the commercial rate. But more competition is coming in. She says drivers can use Park and Ride (when it resumes), park early in Linenhall or download a parking app for a discount.” The racecourse have done us all a favour by giving us a choice and that should put pressure on other car parks to be competitive. But don’t forget for some people it is more about convenience than price. If they weren’t the Grosvenor shopping centre car park would have gone out of business but whenever I go in there it seems to have plenty of takers! But at least now people have more of a choice.
The proliferation of hotel developments is another hot topic. Katrina argues that, yes, we do need more hotels. “If you want to be York, you need them. If you want to be a major tourist attraction you need them. Consumer tastes evolve all the time – you can’t stand still. You need a mix at every price bracket. We had a lot of 3 star, 4 stars, not a lot at the budget end. We only had the Grosvenor at the top end. We now have Indigo, which is 4 stars plus, and there’s a new application for a boutique property for Lloyds Bank on the corner of St John St. MOXY is a family proposition, it’s on the Zoo end of town. Roomz is another interesting one and has worked really well, they have small kitchens in the rooms.”
She sees the Northgate development as a catalyst for change in the same way Storyhouse was. ” We are going to have a really nice market, every city in Europe I’ve been to has a nice market, It’s a hub for social interaction, deals can be made, dates can happen, all sorts can happen in that market – hopefully you’ll be able to go along and watch the football or rugby whilst having a craft beer and a taco!”! Hooray Northgate will have a car park which isn’t a toilet, welcoming and clean to replace a dank cellar like hovel! It will have a cinema and that encourages people to come into town, have fun and spend money. I think it will change the whole vibe of that area. In a city with students you have to give them something to do not just Rosie’s and Cruise.” She hopes that phase 2, with the contents still up for debate, will include a “village in the city” style development. Another idea is a collaboration with the Zoo on a garden space. “The zoo is a massive scientific asset to the city with great environmental and botanical credentials ” she says.
“I don’t like comparing to Chester to York as York is a lot bigger and a lot further away from other big cities. And from a tourism point of view they have a few trumps: They have a national museum – the National Railway Museum. They have a monumental Cathedral, they have a museum in their castle, a renovated art gallery and a fun Viking experience in Jorvik.
We too have our Cathedral, castle and our Deva Experience but to really supercharge tourism to York level we would need to be more ambitious. If we want a national museum in Chester, let’s go to London and see if anyone wants a regional outpost as has happened in York, Liverpool and Dundee! Let’s see if there’s any business to be done there, if not we should go with our own, a Roman centre or experience. Alice Roberts said that Chester is the most “Roman” city in the UK. “There’s things that York have that we could really work on. And people are working on them, lots of people, Chester Visual Arts are doing a great job, promoting art in Chester.
One of the things I genuinely believe is “ask for forgiveness not for permission” – if you ask permission, you’ll never get it! The other one is “ready, fire, aim!” Sometimes you just have to give it a crack. Look at Sui Tang! He’s up an alleyway, his main business had to be reconfigured – reopening soon hooray – and he had no idea if that was going to work, it’s quite unique. And people liked it! He’s confident enough to try it and it worked. I’m confident that we have bright people who are going to do good things. We have Katie from Weasel and the Bug on the Board, she immediately flipped her business online in lockdown and spent 5 months sending out parcels, keeping her brand alive. The minute she opened the door, people came back.
Katrina’s aspirations for the city seem in tune with many residents’ opinions expressed over the years. ” Someone needs to come up with a clever idea for British Home Stores that is not a shop. Personally, I would like to see a residential building, maybe retirement, with some small units underneath. I would like to see some progress on the Quicks building on Lower Bridge Street. That would massively help all the businesses on that street. I think we should have resi at all prices and in all shapes and sizes in Chester – hopefully using exciting young architects – from affordable homes to luxury apartments, so we get a good mix of people.” Also, she says “There are probably a million reasons why this isn’t possible but personally I would knock down the back of Dee House and put a really cool video installation in the windows that tells the history of Chester but in a modern way. ” She feels the amphitheatre lacks interpretation “If you really thought of that area as a whole with Dee House, the amphitheatre and the old Cathedral, someone could do something with it – a gateway to what Chester is all about. An art gallery for Chester remains a long term goal. As for the largely unused Chester Castle”: “It’s just sitting there! It should be animated in a way that would appeal to children.”
She would also like to see more made of the city’s waterways. ” I think it could be more of an asset, put a running track down there, put some sculptures in” The River Dee is a very important river and we don’t go very far, there’s a bit by the river then it kind of dies…” She praises the improvements in the canal area by Artichoke/Waitrose, the long awaited Shot Tower regeneration and the project to connect Chester and Ellesmere Port along the canal.
“I’m always positive” she says, with an acceptance that whilst the future may be tough Chester has enough character and strength to endure but must be open to new ideas and fresh thinking. ” Anybody that wants to go back to how it used to be, I don’t really want to know that. Now we’re like this, we need to think of new solutions. Supertrees, that’s a great example. What a fun thing that is. I like crazy things! When I saw the helter skelter at Tate Modern I thought why can’t Chester have something like that, we need some fun things that makes Chester feel like it’s got a personality. If you look on the Continent very often it’s the historic setting that gives rise to some very funky ideas – the clash of old and new is always refreshing. We do need more tourist attractions. If you did a massive historical escape room in one of those restaurant units, you might be alright! ”
The Council have really “stepped up” she says. ” They distributed those rate grants at pace -what a task, I wouldn’t have liked to have to organise that! Public health has been really well managed. Individuals at the council have stepped up, considering they’ve had a lot to deliver. They have kept Northgate going which is crucial for the regeneration and set up the High St Cell to get everyone working together. I’m looking forward to continuing to work at this pace to keep the partnership going and help businesses recover.
“Storyhouse also didn’t sit back, they decided that they were there to serve the community, they put theatre on in the Park, and the cinema outdoors. They have really tried! Compared to what’s happened in London where everyone’s turned off the lights and gone home, hats off to them
“There’s a lot of opportunity for Chester to position itself now as a good live/work city, with good lifestyle aspects, good employment prospects if people invest, and a lot of newish infrastructure. There’s beautiful countryside, a good rail link to London, not everything is to be moaned about! If the economy becomes more diverse and attracts young and more entrepreneurial people, everything else will fall into place. We need to present Chester in a new light and offer something different. ”