Crunch Christmas: Holyhead - a high street phoenix?

Image caption The closed down Fads decorating store is now reborn on Market Street, Holyhead as gift shop Utopia

It is a tale of two towns - both of them the Anglesey port of Holyhead.

In 2009, it was labelled as the British high street with the highest proportion of vacant shops.

One UK daily newspaper described it as "depressing" and "empty of shoppers - store after store empty and boarded up".

But a lot can change in two years - even in the current climate of economic uncertainty.

Today, many of those shuttered shops on the town's Market Street have new tenants.

Businesses like the Venue Walkway. It is selling itself as an upmarket restaurant and cafe bar that has risen from the ruins of an old green grocers and a burnt out amusement arcade.

"I'm born and bred Holyhead myself. It's been quite upsetting seeing the town centre the way it was," remarked the restaurant's general manager, Carl Owen.

"But you definitely get that sense there are new Holyhead ideas coming and more people are showing an interest in the town centre."

The island of Anglesey is not short of good restaurants, scattered in picturesque locations such Rhoscolyn, which boasts the White Eagle - reportedly a dining destination for the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William.

"Holyhead people didn't have anything like that for themselves. They had to travel - it's right on their doorstep now, within walking distance," added the manager.

But what about other ventures on the town's high street? Has it simply been a case of injecting massive doses of tax-payers cash into the commercial veins of a sick patient?

Rent cuts

Not according to the town's Plas Cybi Partnership.

The body is a Communities First project, one of almost a hundred schemes across Wales aiming to bring together local people in some of the more deprived areas of Wales to improve the communities they live in.

The Holyhead partnership came up with the 'empty shops initiative' last year, as one low cost way of bringing high street regeneration.

Plas Cybi negotiated directly with the landlords and agents of empty stores, securing drastically reduced rents on the vacant shops.

It then helped spruce up those derelict premises, and find new local tenants.

Development officer for Plas Cybi, Alun Roberts, said the makeovers have cost just a few thousand pounds each, and the properties are now home to thriving young businesses.

"It was quite dire in Holyhead town centre about 12 months ago, following the closure of your big retailers like Woolworth, Kwik Save, Ethel Austin and Fads," accepted Alun Roberts.

"It had a major, major impact, and it was quite depressing to walk down the street.

"But we have been able to turn things around.

"We are creating opportunities for local people to setup their own ventures in these premises, and we're also bringing a bit of life back into the main shopping area."

Image caption New ventures and make-overs have improved confidence in Holyhead

The focus has been niche businesses, bringing a boutique experience to the town centre, and avoiding battles with out-of-town retail giants.

A former food store that stood empty for several years is now the Silky Soles spa - offering feet pedicures using garra rufa fish.

An abandoned office suite is home to Eden Emporium - set up by four women to sell their jewellery, art and decorated cakes.

New confidence

And the one-time high street decorating chain Fads is now home to Plas Cybi's own shop - Utopia, promoting local gifts and acting as a tourism hub for the town.

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Media captionHow did Holyhead revitalise its high street? George Herd spoke to some of those involved:

There has also been European money on the table, as part of a focus on both Ireland and Wales as gateways to Europe.

The funding has led to initiatives like 'Brand', which has the job of selling a new image of the town.

It has seen disused shop fronts given a good lick of paint, both to improve the town image, and to attract new tenants.

The scheme has also been able to offer grants to new ventures, including the Little Stars - a cafe and children's soft play centre on Market Street.

It opened its doors just a few weeks ago, encouraged by the high street turn around, and the help on offer.

"Having the support of the local community and the council, that spurred me on to think this is possible," said Little Stars owner, Hannah Robinson.

"I think people have got a bit of confidence. If you see an improvement - one or two new projects - it has spurred people on to think - yes I can do it, even in a recession."

The former childminder said she has been to a number of meetings with some of the regeneration agencies backing the town, and she is convinced that the future for Holyhead remains bright.

Increased trade

"I think there are big things heading this way. The plans that we have for Holyhead - well - watch this space - it's going to be good."

Of course - this tale of two towns is not a fairytale and as yet, there is no happy-ever-after ending for Holyhead.

Like so many high streets across Britain, the collapse of Woolworth left a high street wound that has not healed.

But that shop front is in the target sights for the Plas Cybi Partnership in 2012.

And across the street at the abandoned Kwik Save site, the workmen are already in.

It is being turned into a new retail unit and apartments by North Wales Housing and Anglesey council.

"It is a gradual process, it is something that is happening on a weekly basis. But the good news is that existing traders who have been here for some time, they are seeing an increase in their trade," added the Plas Cybi development officer.

"That is very, very encouraging."

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