“Our biggest fear for our businesses is the most basic one: survival.”
Stark words from the head of one of Birmingham’s business improvement districts (BIDs) as the city struggles with the ever-changing landscape of a post-lockdown world.
It is now more than five weeks since restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen their doors while other sectors such as cinemas and gyms have also since followed suit.
But Julia Robinson, who leads Southside BID, says there is still much work to be done for a district whose core commercial footprint is the city’s once thriving night-time economy which has been crushed by the tight lockdown restrictions.
The shackles are being loosened by the Government, with some sense of normality resuming, but the nation is months away from once again seeing venues packed to the rafters with customers.
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Ms Robinson told BusinessLive: “Many of our businesses, particularly those in Chinatown, were the first to suffer a downturn in trade and have been dealing with the implications of this since January.
“We have worked hard to support them with awareness campaigns and access to funding but the truth is that there remains huge gaps in the support needed and it is not coming quickly enough.
“We are also hugely worried about the arts, especially after the announcement from Birmingham Hippodrome that they won’t be undertaking live shows again until February at the earliest.
“So many of our bars and restaurants rely on the theatre’s audiences to keep afloat so this is a real concern.”
Similarly, Westside BID is another which contributes massively to Birmingham’s night-time economy.
Established in 2005 as Broad Street BID before a name change in 2015, it was the city’s first BID and also one of the earliest to launch in the UK, counting the famous ‘Golden Mile’ and corporate offices of Brindleyplace among its throng.
BID general manager Mike Olley warned that some of its member businesses would fail but felt the community there was starting to find its feet again.
“Naturally, a small minority of our members will fail yet that is an ongoing facet of working with such a multitude of businesses,” he told BusinessLive.
“What is always sad is the people who lose their work as they are so often fine servants of the companies they work for. It’s the nature of business – it can be brutal at times, just like nature.
“The area is slowly opening up and business is beginning to find its feet again. The process is slow but it’s positive and on a clear upwards trajectory.”
Business improvement districts have been springing up all over both Birmingham city centre and the surrounding suburbs ever since that initial Broad Street launch 15 years ago.
An extra levy is added to the business rates of occupiers within a BID’s boundaries which is then used on projects for the betterment of that district, with the bodies also providing an independent representative voice for their members.
Birmingham’s BIDs have led developments and initiatives such as street wardens, Walk of Stars in Broad Street and Church Street Square to the annual Colmore Food and Jewellery Quarter festivals, both of which were cancelled this year due to coronavirus.
Jewellery Quarter BID represents a thriving cluster of independent businesses, from beauty salons, hairdressers and bars to jewellery retailers and manufacturers.
Its manager Luke Crane says more than 40 per cent of its levy payers are office based so the switch to home working is having a huge knock-on effect on the quarter’s hospitality businesses.
He added: “We’re also extremely worried for our heritage and arts venues.
“These are important assets to the Jewellery Quarter and, without them, our history can’t be told.
“Birmingham Museums Trust has recently entered into a period of redundancy consultations, meaning the future of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is sadly under threat.
“It would be an absolute tragedy if we were to lose such an integral part of the Jewellery Quarter’s community.”
The tide is turning though with companies adapting to secure new revenue streams, welcoming customers back as best as they can while adhering to the latest coronavirus guidelines and planning for the road ahead.
Ms Robinson says the sense of community in Southside has shone through during the pandemic and lockdown as the district prepares for a new initiative which will see Hurst Street closed at weekends to allow for more outdoor seating.
“Many of our businesses have explored new avenues for revenue, such as food delivery and integrated technology, and worked together to share best practice on social distancing measures,” she told BusinessLive.
“We’ve worked in collaboration with the other BIDs to deliver marketing campaigns, such as Birmingham is Back, which focused on the reopening of the city centre.
“It has been, and will continue to be, a huge team effort to get our city open again. We have a huge task on our hands to support the sustainability of one of the most vibrant and popular areas of the city.”
Mr Olley is similarly upbeat about the prospects for Broad Street and the Westside area.
“I can feel investors circulating the area looking for opportunities which I know are there,” he concluded.
“Investment will create regeneration and that will take advantage of a changing dynamic, with a reduction in demand for office space replaced by an expansion of city centre living and with better transport links, like the Metro extension, supporting that.”
Perhaps, the prevailing sentiment about the changing landscape in a post-covid world is how people, employers, city planners and politicians have been forced to accept, and embrace, change.
Attitudes towards crucial issues such as flexible working, commuting and how we use public space are now at the forefront of the agenda.
In an area which has already seen unprecedented investment over the past two decades, Mr Crane says there will be more to come in the Jewellery Quarter as its population is set to grow by up to 3,000 as a result of new residential developments.
“We’re very optimistic about opening the Jewellery Quarter up further to increase footfall by creating pedestrian precincts and a café culture through spill out from local venues,” he said.
“We’ve also begun conversations with the local authority on road closures and in the future would love to see these materialise.
“One of the positives of the current situation is the local authority and other strategic bodies are beginning to seriously think about the way our city is utilised by its residents and workers.”