Building confidence is key as a stronger Leeds city centre emerges from Covid pandemic - Leeds BID’s Andrew Cooper
As Leeds tentatively emerges from lockdown, building confidence is key to saving the high street and unlocking the full potential of businesses.
That’s the message from Andrew Cooper, the chief executive of the Leeds Business Improvement District (LeedsBID).
The pandemic has changed everything for Leeds businesses.
As they adapt to Government restrictions, transform their outdoor seating areas and overhaul their plans for the future, LeedsBID has been supporting them every step of the way.
There have been some casualties of the pandemic, from small independents closing their doors to familiar chains disappearing from the high street.
But Leeds is “on the front foot”, Mr Cooper said, with lockdown providing opportunities for growth and change.
“We get on with it, we’re resilient, we support each other”, he told the YEP.
“It strikes me how adaptable businesses have been. We’ve had restrictions, furlough, grants - all these things thrown at businesses, but they have been able to cope with what has been a very challenging landscape.
“I’ve seen incredible resilience and collaboration, people working together in ways that I’ve not seen before. Competitors sharing their practices and signage and working together.
“As a city, we need to work together. That was the case last year and it’s great to see that carrying on as we come out of the restrictions.”
Non-essential retailers have now been closed for more than three months. The hospitality sector has sat empty since November.
As some businesses prepare to welcome back customers from April 12, Mr Cooper said he has noticed a buzz about the city centre again.
LeedsBID, a not-for-profit organisation, has helped to shape Leeds City Council’s reopening plans and coordinate distribution of the Government’s Welcome Back Fund, designed to get business back on their feet.
“It felt like a town closed down for winter in the city centre,” Mr Cooper added.
“But there’s lots of activity going on again, owners getting back into their shops and starting to prepare.
“They’re chomping at the bit to open. But there is some apprehension as you can’t always just turn on a tap. You need a bit of preparation, particularly in the hospitality sector.”
Mr Cooper said he was encouraged by the investment put into the city centre during lockdown, with big refurbishment projects such as at the Queens Hotel and retailers like Decathlon choosing to open new sites in Leeds.
He added: “Leeds is very much on the front foot, it’s been proactive in thinking longer-term and investors are thinking about Leeds’ long term game too.”
Despite his optimism, Mr Cooper does not underestimate the challenges the pandemic has presented to businesses.
LeedsBID is preparing a catalogue of events over the summer to generate footfall and drive customers back to the city centre.
It has lobbied on behalf of businesses to create new outdoor spaces and provides support through Engine Room - a hub offering free resources and training programmes including how to adapt to restrictions.
Mr Cooper said he hopes the new ways of working created by the pandemic may provide opportunities for positive change.
“Short-term opportunities because of Covid might turn into long-term changes in the city centre for good”, he added.
“If we want to encourage more of a cafe culture of people sitting outside, that provides opportunities to change the look and feel of the city centre.”
People’s spending habits will also have changed, Mr Cooper added, and building confidence in visiting the city centre will be the key to drive back customers.
Mr Cooper said: “Historically, Leeds has been a very traditional 9-5 city. We now have different working patterns and we’re not all coming into the city at the same time, certainly as restrictions are first lifted.
“It’s a very different city centre. Behaviours will change, people will be a bit nervous at first - it’s a bit like riding a bike again.
“We need to build confidence and reassure people that when you go into shop staff have been trained to make people safe.”
What are Mr Cooper’s hopes for the summer ahead?
“We want to see a very busy, vibrant, safe and happy city centre,” he said.
“The events we’re planning are centred around families and people of all ages, encouraging people to come back to enjoy the city centre they love and the haunts they have missed.
“We’re looking to create a happy and welcoming city. One where people are generous, kind and understanding towards each other.
“I think people’s behaviours have changed as a result of the pandemic and we want to embody that.”
Mr Cooper believes collaboration and a community spirit are what's needed to help the city centre bounce back as restrictions are eased.
He added: “If there is anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that we can’t rest on our laurels.
“We need to continue that good collaboration and working together. I think the city will be stronger for it.”
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