Stalham traders have their say

TIMES are tough for traders everywhere. As recession grips, we customers are thinking twice before shelling out for anything - and often that second thought is “not today.

TIMES are tough for traders everywhere.

As recession grips, we customers are thinking twice before shelling out for anything - and often that second thought is “not today.”

So imagine, in the current climate, you're running a small business in Stalham.

Turning to this page one Thursday you find a less-than-flattering poem suggesting that the town might be better under water, accompanied by a photo of an eyesore building on the High Street. You wouldn't be best pleased, would you?

Stalham has had a bad press ever since Tesco opened there six years ago and a sizeable number of traders and residents predicted the end of the High Street and community life.

Ever since, any other Tesco protestors in the country threatened with a store on their doorstep (including Sheringham and Aylsham) have cited Stalham as a warning about what might happen.

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National newspapers have leapt gleefully on the “ghost-town Stalham” bandwagon and now that Tesco wants to double the size of its store the town's again become a bit of a cause célèbre.

My contribution to the debate was meant to provoke a reaction - and it surely did.

I showed that it was easy to paint Stalham as an extinct dodo - and invited others to tell me that it was in fact a very different sort of bird; a phoenix rising from the ashes of Tesco's arrival.

Once the enraged traders of Stalham had finished sticking pins in their Alex Hurrell Voodoo dolls, I got an invitation from Roy Woolsey, chairman of the Happing Business Group, to visit High Street and walk half a mile in their shoes.

Roy believes the true picture is neither all doom, nor all roses. He and town council chairman Tony Ross-Benham took me to meet one long-established and several new traders, and this is what they told me….

·Bring on the multi-nationals, says Bob Shearwood - we can handle it. Last month he expanded his Bateman's carpet business from a warehouse in Norwich, to Stalham.

“Geographically, this is a good location for us. We wanted an affordable high street site and we found it in Stalham.

“We don't have to make the same sort of profits as the multi-nationals and I think people round here like dealing with a local person.

“We've got a good product, at a good price and we offer a good service. My bigger picture is that in two or three years' time this will be an established shop with a regular turnover.”

·Entice Tesco's customers, lavish a little TLC on some of the older buildings and Stalham could be another Holt, according to Ruth Darley , of William James Antiques.

She and husband James restored the old Maid's Head pub and have been selling antique clocks and furniture there since May.

They jumped at the rare chance of a large, period, town-centre building to house their business.

Ruth points out that the High Street is dotted with character buildings and that Stalham has a beautiful and central parish church.

With a bit of investment, positive thinking and marketing, its potential would be unlimited.

The Darleys are 21st-century business people. Many of their customers find them via their internet website and they are visited by antique hunters from as far afield as Sheffield and London. Perhaps (and this is me talking) that's an essential key to survival nowadays for many market town tradespeople.

·Nigel Dowdney had a different perspective as the only long-established High Street trader I met on my tour.

His Stalham Shopper convenience store was also the only business I visited in direct competition with Tesco.

And there was no getting away from its ravages - his trade plummeted by 50pc in the first week Tesco opened and stayed like that for a couple of years.

Sheer graft - Nigel and his wife work seven days a week - and diversification, coupled with a second store at West Earlham, have enabled them to survive

Post Tesco, he has witnessed a dramatic fall in people visiting the High Street, businesses going to the wall, new ones opening and then folding.

Nigel, who is a director of the Association of Convenience Stores, believes those Stalham traders who survived to tell the tale are now battle hardened; if Tesco does expand, the impact this time will not be as great.

And he is encouraged that new businesses are still launching and working hard to make a go of it.

Nigel isn't among those who like to hope Tesco's just a Big Friendly Giant which cares about the communities around it.

It's solely interested in profit, he says, and North Norfolk District Council must be eternally vigilant in making sure it complies with every single planning condition.

·I'm lucky Louise Dace's shop is called Fairytale Gowns and not Cannon Balls R Us. You can't inflict too much damage hurling silk and satin about. Louise was gracious and welcoming to me but I got the feeling she would quite have enjoyed lobbing something more than angry words in my direction.

She switched from an 18-year career as a debt collector to selling fab frocks and accessories to brides and prom-goers … and then I come along and write a knocking poem about the town in which she's made a major investment.

Louise's shop is in one of those historic buildings Ruth Darley raves about and she's made it look very attractive.

She got married three years ago and was horrified at the cost of wedding finery. Now she aims to offer glamour at a price customers can afford, saving them a trip into the city, with payment-plan options.

Louise has been open for a year and has noticed a growth in the number and variety of new businesses opening in the town.

Traders need to be optimists, and she is. If only one quarter of Tesco's customers could be

encouraged to visit the High Street, it would be a huge boost, says Louise.

As for the credit crunch: “People are still going to get married and girls are still going to

want to look their best at the school prom.”

·It would have been relatively easy for Lisa Over to pay me back -

slipping something nasty in my coffee maybe. But, like all the other traders I met, Lisa was courteous and restrained, and served up a very palatable brew at Reads Coffee House, which she opened in August.

If Tesco did rip the heart out of Stalham, Lisa's doing a pretty good

job of stuffing it back in. She's already built up a loyal following.

People come in for a coffee, get chatting with others, form

friendships, write (with her permission) on the walls, make plans

and set the world to rights.

“What you wrote was a bit unfair and damaging. I think it was a

biased opinion,” Lisa told me.

“A lot of traders here are spending money and trying really hard to

survive and get more life into this traditional market town.”

And then she summed up Stalham in words which struck

a note of truth with me: “There's something about it I like. It's

been described as 'quaint - but not too quaint.' It's in a sort of weird time zone and it's not

quite like any other town.”

My tour took us from one end of Stalham High Street - and one frustrating problem - to the other, and another.

In six years Tesco has done nothing to improve the alleyway leading from directly outside its store doors to the High Street, despite repeated requests, according to Roy and Tony.

It remains litter-strewn, battered, poorly lit and ugly. It would make absolutely no impact at all on Tesco's zillions to define that alleyway with an attractive arch, erect signs pointing to the High Street, surface it properly and get the lighting sorted - but it could have a hugely positive impact on some of the traders I met.

And at the other end of the High Street we hit the mish-mash of land and car park, with social housing hastily “plonked in the middle” (Roy's words), which forms the old station site.

There have been numerous plans and ideas over the past 15 or so years for this area but they've all fallen by the wayside because of the difficulty in getting joint owners North Norfolk District Council and Norfolk County Council to agree, say Tony and Roy.

So there you have it: traders working hard in the middle to make a living and a scruffy stalemate beyond their control at either end of the street.

Roy's right: the story's neither black nor white. Ruth's right: Stalham's got great potential. Lisa's right: there's something a bit offbeat and likeable about the place.

What's definitely not right is that those with the power to unleash that potential - Tesco and the local authorities - can get away with years of dithering and inertia.