“How we can create confidence in our future”
The lessons we can learn from Glasgow and Edinburgh
How parts of the town centre look today
Dumfries town centre has a mix of building styles, ages and types. Some re-developed buildings have a modern appearance, while others are more traditional. A varied streetscape is created from buildings with a mixed appearance. Some individual buildings and vistas are pleasing, distinctive and make a strong contribution to the identity of the town. Property maintenance standards vary. Efforts have been made to improve the quality of public spaces, to improve the ground surfaces and to provide appropriate street furniture.
The businesses are a fairly typical retail mix. Towards either end of the High Street are two department stores. They are located in re-developed, modern buildings. These bigger shops and the Loreburne Centre act as anchors and contain the main retail shopping area. The Loreburne Centre has a covered, indoor shopping arcade and shops which face directly onto the High Street.
Re-development is proposed at the Southergate Centre.
Problem or opportunity?
UK shopping has changed. While this is reflected in a changed business mix, empty retail shops are more commonplace in many towns.
Despite several recent expensive efforts to improve things, parts of Dumfries town centre in and around the High Street continue to look neglected. There is a perception that some nearby towns have been able to manage things better. Amid expressions of concern, there is a wish for clarity on the best way to improve things.
If people no longer wish to use the town centre so much for retail shopping, what else could the area be used for? Who should control and regulate the use of this space – government, property owners, the public or a balanced mix? Should the town centre be re-purposed? What other town changes might also be necessary, and how should any new projects be balanced and managed? How would it be a better place for local people to use? What part should tourism and visitor attraction play? Crucially, how do we build agreement and make progress? Lastly and most important, who should pay for all this?
As an artist, and interested in visual things, I also hope for a solution which looks good and works well.
There is little housing in the town centre but a lot to the south and west. The Georgian town houses are now mostly offices. Near the town centre there are many Victorian buildings and a good deal of later, in-fill development. There has also been plenty of new housing in the suburbs. Lots of people clearly want to live in Dumfries.
There are two Scottish Tourist Board 3-star hotels close to the High Street and others a little further out. Dumfries has a profusion of other hotels and Guest Houses.
Close to the town centre are two cinemas, a refurbished theatre and a leisure centre. There are also a primary and secondary school at the northern edge.
While the town Centre is fairly busy during the day, at night, apart from the town centre pubs and night clubs, it is mostly unused.
Now lets compare Dumfries’s situation with that of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
How Glasgow has Changed
Glasgow was once a great manufacturing city. Now the shipyards are few, and the docks, steelworks, railway works and similar manufacturing industries have gone.
Thousands of workers jobs were lost.
When Glasgow lost these jobs, it also lost some of its self confidence and the city faced an uncertain future. Today a different and prosperous Glasgow is being made, perhaps symbolised by buildings such as the Armadillo, the Hydro and the tall new offices and hotels rising over the city centre. People may argue about how to continue to change Glasgow for the better, but I suspect there are not many who would argue that a corner has been turned in Glasgow’s history. Its a city which has acknowledged that some old industries and some of the old ways have gone. The past has, to some extent, been let go. Treasured bits are cherished and remembered, that’s an important thing to do. We shouldn’t deny the past, we acknowledge it.
Glasgow signalled its intention to move forward in a key event, the Garden Festival of 1988, and then won the City of Culture award in 1990. The garden festival was a strange experience. It was more a garden of curiosities, some of which had links to Glasgow’s past.
Many exotic structures- a tower, a roller coaster, giant teapots and others, posed alongside Shona Kinloch’s witty sculptures of Glasgow Dogs.
The festival was a great success.
Now Glasgow is facing the future not the past, and is a shopping, event and tourist destination.
Its also still a busy place, and a place to do business. Glasgow is still a manufacturing centre. The riverside, so long derelict, is transforming, and some of the business and work focus of Glaswegians has moved to new places in the city or around it.
Now many people from Dumfries use Glasgow in preference to their own town for weekend shopping, such is the attraction. Crucially, Glasgow is now an all year round tourist destination.
Change in Edinburgh
Similarly in Edinburgh we see a year-round tourist industry which has become so successful that it almost swamps the city.
Efforts are already in place to spin-off some of this tourism into other parts of Scotland. So how do we move forward in Dumfries?
Bringing change to Dumfries using History, Heritage and Archaeology
Our possible way forward may be to capitalise on the history of the town, on figures such as Bruce, Burns and Barrie. Their lives are interwoven with Dumfries’s past. They already have a presence here and we can build on that.
History and walking tours might be added to fixed museum or visitor type presentations. The Whitesands leading to the Burns centre at the Millhouse and Camera Obscura lend themselves to this kind of experience. We could develop High Street visitor centres to interpret each of their stories, and use these centres to refer to whatever existing structures can be found in the town. Perhaps we could offer re-enactments and re-interpretation in place of hard historical or archaeological structures. Such events as the passing presence of Bonnie Prince Charlie and an interpretation of the Georgian architectural area, or the John Paul Jones Story could add variety and depth to the perception of the town and also offers the chance to link to existing visitor centres locally and elsewhere in Scotland.
We know from visitor surveys that Scotland’s history attracts and motivates almost a third of Scotland’s tourists. Fifty million people across the world now claim Scots ancestry. In an uncertain world Scotland is a safe visitor destination. Let’s not forget our European neighbours either. Scotland’s profile is high at the moment. We are in favour. If we refurbish our town centre and present carefully to all our visitors, we should do well.
Private sector investment is the key ingredient to all this. Private funding would be needed to help create a tourist friendly infrastructure such as good new central hotels and amenities, restaurants and suitable entertainment and a cafe culture and/or night life. A new core could exist alongside existing businesses. Shopping would need to be re-purposed to reflect both tourist and local needs. To what extent can we re-use the existing building stock and involve local businesses?
As Edinburgh and Glasgow have shown, tourism is now an all-year event. If just a few more of those visiting Edinburgh or Glasgow could be coaxed into visiting Dumfries for a few nights then that would make quite a change. Let’s also not forget that Edinburgh is booming. It is a great business centre. If we were successful down here with more tourism, what sort of people and businesses would we attract?
We could also add to other growth initiatives already in place.
We might signal this change to others and to ourselves just as Glasgow did. A one-off iconic festival on a Dumfries theme might precede and pave the way for change. We could manage this fairly soon and it might help with drawing business interest in redevelopment.
Lets face the future with confidence.