It’s easy to stand on the sideline criticising so here is a constructive suggestion on a way forward (with acknowledgement to the traders for some of the ideas).
It assumes that no-one inherently wants rid of the market but that all parties have some reservations on the terms of progress. The Council is clearly thinking financially – they want a solution that will be profitable for them and for the town. The market traders want a profitable livelihood. As with other people this depends on footfall significantly increasing. The retailers in the town want a market which enhances their trade – brings people to Ashbourne without taking their sales. The residents of Ashbourne want something they can be proud of – another part of our culture. The visitors to Ashbourne want a show. They want something which draws them in, that they can show off to friends and family.
I am also prepared to concede that the journey from where we are now to a normal trading market may be too far – the market needs to take a different path.
Think about what appeals to you about the markets you have visited:
1. Bakewell Farmers’ Market. Seemingly crammed, always drawing people to the town and full of good quality food stalls. It has the advantage of only being once a month and of being in an all-weather venue but it seems to have it right – drawing on local produce. Its held in a venue that’s synonymous with agriculture – where else would you buy your bangers?
2. Birmingham Christmas Market. There are lots that have tried to copy them but they have a good relationship with an authentic German market and the event complements the existing activity. The local retailers are happy with it and Brummies are proud to host it.
3. French town markets. I love them and they appeal to me on any scale. Local people buy local produce on a regular basis – they are used to using the market and proud of the local terroir. We could look at the benefits of twinning advice for this but mainly seeing the benefits of unique local advantage.
4. Covent Garden. When you use Google images pictures of street entertainment appear more than any of the retail. Covent Garden is theatre.
5. City covered markets are a regular shopping trip for many people but they succeed through tight control of opening times, attendance and presentation. Buyers know what they can get there and that the stalls will be open.
There are some lessons here. Ashbourne has a unique culture and opportunity. Trying to replicate any of these models is doomed to failure. If you think about the themes though you can see how something could be sustained which enhanced and drew on what Ashbourne is good at. Before outlining a solution we also need to be clear on finance. The current recommendation which suggests replacing a market with car parking spaces is ridiculous. It is based on a principle which treats the cobbled square as if it was a supermarket shelf with it being made available to the most profitable item. We may as well be done with the debate and sell it to Marks and Spencer/Tesco or Sainsbury with that logic. Surely the challenge is to make our town centerpiece an asset and focal point.
Here’s a six point recovery programme
1. Manage the existing market properly. Rather than treat it as a problem look after it properly. The stallholders should all attend regularly rain or shine. If they can’t do that they dont really have a business anyway. They should keep their stalls tidy and well presented. In return the Council would promote and provide the market with the right environment. Now that the old stalls have been stolen what better time than now to replace them with something good rather than something cheap. As fastidious observers of colour schemes they could provide the stalls with branded canvases which keep the wind and rain off shoppers and vendors alike?
2. Go after the stalls y0u want. When all stalls are used in a successful Ashbourne market the heart of it will be based around fruit and veg stalls, butchers, fishmonger and hardware. Go after them and make it difficult for them to say no to come to Ashbourne. Offer the local retailers the first option to extend their space onto the square. The other types of stall are a luxury – this is your bread and butter.
3. Plan a market which extends beyond the square. How about clothing in the comfort of the Town Hall, crafts in the Green Man Yard? make all of the areas of the Town Earn their keep. Sometimes the all-town events like Christmas shopping are too straggly because we are not used to practising it often enough.
4. Encourage people on to the market. Markets are an entry point into retail (see Mary Portas’s views on this). We should encourage local producers, craftsmen, charities and the like to take a chance without too much risk. This not only raises revenue but also engages the local community and breeds the next group of shopowners.
5. Play to our strengths by having themed markets around the main market and which have natural organising structures around them. Examples could be:
A more regular antiques market. We have lots of good antiques retailers in the town who may relish the chance to do an easier to organise version of Antiques in the Street
A Craft market. The popup shop before Christmas was excellent and that just involved a handful of the lcoal talent
A Shrovetide themed day on the Saturday following the games where the balls could be on display, Sellors watches presented formally, awards made and maybe tie it in with a beer festival on the Square.
A Scottish themed market around the Highland Gathering. Make sure the bands arrive in time for a full day on Saturday with entertainment, food and the regalia associated.
A farmers market. We are blessed with great produce in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Attempts in the past have not really taken off because they have been done in isolation and the definition of local produce has been stretched. Look at the Bakewell success and work out why they wouldn’t come to Ashbourne on the second Saturday in the month for example. Engage our excellent cafes in the campaign and get them all out on the street.
An Armed Forces weekend. The Remembrance Parade is always well supported and we have a good heritage of supporting our troops. This could be a costumed fund raiser.
A Fairtrade market. We should be really proud of the town’s ethical trading.
6. Finally, treat the Square as a stage and have performers every weekend raising money for themselves or for Charities. We have an excellent Performing Arts department at QEGS, the Outlaw Shakespeare company, the Town Band and lots of local bands. Give them the chance to perform regularly at weekends and this will draw their followers as well as visitors.
Of course I know nothing about the difficulties, I’m naive about the finance, and overoptimistic about the public response… but wouldn’t it be great!