In a town dominated by shopping centres Mill Gate is like the middle child.
Overshadowed by its iconic market and the newer and flashier The Rock, the town’s only indoor shopping destination is rarely at the tip of your tongue when you think of Bury.
‘“I don’t think it’s had anything done to it since the 80s,” said one shop owner.
He had just found out that the council have plans to buy and redevelop Mill Gate – filling it with ‘new shops, attractions and street markets’.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be better or worse for us,” Steve Allen said, the owner of Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe.
But he acknowledges that business has been difficult.
“A lot of people come in and focus on one shop. And people walk through Mill Gate if they want to get anywhere. It’s a shortcut.
“We’re all kind of fighting for competition,” he said.
But he’s at a loss as to what he’d like to see done to compete with the likes of The Rock and Bury Market.
“I don’t know what they could do without closing it first. I can’t think of how they’ll improve it.”
This seemed to be a bit of a common theme when speaking to shoppers.
In fact the first woman the MEN spoke to was very quick to say: “There’s nowt wrong with it”.
But the reality is that inside Mill Gate there are around five retail spaces with their shutters down and ‘to let’ signs up.
Perhaps the way forward is to diversify the shopping centre. To make it much more than a retail space – and to bring in restaurants and bars – much like The Rock.
But that’s not something all shoppers want to see.
Carol Parks doesn’t want places to eat – she wants Mill Gate shopping centre to remain a shopping centre – and she misses stores like Debenhams being in Bury.
“They need to bring them back or people will go to Manchester,” she said.
She admits that Mill Gate also looks ‘a bit tired’ and ‘tacky’ but values that it’s undercover. In fact, she’d like to see that cover extend all the way to its rivals.
“They need something that attaches Mill Gate to The Rock. On a winter’s day you don’t want to go there. If I wanted to go to M&S and it was rainy I’d be thinking twice about going there,” she said.
Qadeer Hamad from mobile phone accessory shop TopGift said that business has been ‘very affected’ by the pandemic.
“When you’re earning less, how can you pay the previous rent as before?”
He said that many businesses, like Clarks and Peacocks, are moving to shopping centres where there’s a higher footfall.
“They choose an area where they can earn more for the rent, like The Rock or the Arndale. Many brands are moving,” he said.
Michelle Cunningham has noticed her favourite jewellery store and an afternoon tea cafe disappear from Mill Gate over the last couple of years.
“A lot of the shops have closed down, you know, because of Covid,” she said.
“I’ve been here my whole life and it’s always been thriving but it still seems to be going. The market brings people out.”
But she says that shops and shoppers are flocking to The Rock.
“It just looks more trendy for the younger people.”
The MEN spoke to a group of teenagers who had gathered outside between Mill Gate and the interchange. Why there? Because they had nowhere else to hang out.
“We need an area for students to chill,” said Yusuf Malone.
“We need a nice inside place with chairs. Students have nowhere to be.”
The leader of Bury Council has called its plans to buy Mill Gate with property developers Bruntwood ‘tremendously exciting’ and wants to see the redevelopment create ‘housing, leisure, restaurants and family attractions’.
But he has reassured business owners that ‘nothing will change on day one’ and that reducing business rates is something that could be looked at.
Councillor Eamonn O’Brien said: “This is a tremendously exciting project which will transform the town centre for the better, and future-proof it against the challenges that have faced the high street for years.
“The Mill Gate’s current owners are looking to sell it. We have the opportunity to create something much more comprehensive than just traditional shops, encompassing housing, leisure, restaurants, family attractions. This is all designed to increase the number of visitors, especially in the evening, making the town centre a brighter, better destination.
“From a tenant’s/trader’s perspective, nothing will change on day one – we are even keeping the current asset and property management arrangements.
“We recognise the impact that Covid has had, particularly on business rates. Our Joint Venture agreement with Bruntwood will enable us to explore options around business rates, with the Valuation Office Agency, in more detail once we have completed on the acquisition in 2022.
“We will absolutely not be closing the whole centre at once. When vacancies appear and will not be filled quickly, we will look to see how we can take action to open up the centre, bring in high-quality mixed uses and construct new public realm and civic spaces that will benefit all of the tenants and transform the wider town centre.
“This is just the start of a regeneration journey with Bruntwood. There is a huge amount of consultation, design and planning work to do before the new Mill Gate becomes reality, and local stakeholders – including the existing retailers – will have ample opportunity to play a part in how it ultimately looks.”
With Bury Market receiving a huge £20M investment, and The Rock only having opened in 2010, there’s good reason to fear that Mill Gate could become a high street relic.
But it looks like the council bosses aren’t going to let that happen – as long as they can get their hands on it.
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