What do Wiganers think of next year's 2022 town centre transformation?
A £190m transformation of Wigan town centre is set to get started in 2022.
Much of the town centre will be fenced off as construction commences at the end of January – and many businesses have already begun to relocate or close.
The Galleries shopping centre, home to Wigan Market for the last 30 years, will be demolished as the council tries to reduce the town’s reliance on retail, replacing shopping with more food, drink and entertainment experiences.
The eight-acre shopping complex, which makes up almost a quarter of the town centre’s footprint, will be totally transformed over the next three years.
A 150-room hotel, 464 homes and a multimedia centre with a cinema, 10-lane bowling alley and indoor mini golf are all planned as part of the Galleries 25 project – a joint venture partnership between developers Cityheart and BCEGI.
And a new "open, light and airy" modern market hall will be built on Market Street.
Howard Gallimore, who has run restaurants in the town centre for 21 years, said the plans which have been approved by Wigan council are "marvelous".
“It’s like winning the lottery,” he said. “It’s excellent for the town – for the people.”
But there has been fierce opposition to the plans from market traders, many of whom fear they won’t survive the town centre turning into a "building site".
The new market, which will feature a contemporary food hall, modern retail units, offices and co-working spaces, has been described as "gentrification".
And critics of the move say developers simply want the market "out the way".
However, Cityheart managing director Mark McNamee said the new market will be "front and centre" – and the traders stand to benefit from the scheme.
“It’s like Altrincham Market,” he said. “Altrincham town centre was dead. Now it’s thriving and vibrant. That’s exactly what we want to do with Wigan Market.”
Makinson Arcade will benefit from some investment immediately, the North West property developer said, with two new tenants already set to move in.
The idea is to make it more like Manchester’s Barton Arcade, McNamee said.
While not part of the redevelopment plan, the Grand Arcade will temporarily accommodate some retailers from the Galleries while the work takes place.
But besides this, McNamee said Wiganers will not see much else change in the town centre over the next 18 months as work begins below ground level.
The current market will remain open until the replacement market hall is ready.
Some traders fear there will be fewer stalls in the new market – so much so, they have refused to be named individually, frightened of the repercussions.
Responding to traders’ concerns, Mr McNamee said there will ‘probably’ be more retail space in the new market with a stall for every stallholder who wants one.
“We understand where they’re coming from,” he added. “But they need to look a little bit to the future.
“I think there always has to be progress. You always have to move forward.
“If you call it ‘gentrified’ because it looks better and it’s a place where more people want to spend their money…”
Opponents to the redevelopment were referred to as the "flat cap brigade" at the planning committee meeting where the blueprint was given the green light.
One protester in the public gallery was asked to leave the fiery meeting in November after shouting at councillors: “You’ve all got blood on your hands.”
The former Leigh librarian had been fired after criticising her employer Wigan council for handing a £135m contract to a Chinese state-owned company.
But BCEGI UK, the British branch of the company which is headquartered in Beijing, says it has no links to Xinjiang where China is accused of "genocide".
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, who was the shadow foreign secretary at the time, has received assurances regarding national security and human rights concerns she had.
Thousands of people had signed a petition calling for the plans to be halted – but councillors on the committee approved the application by 10 votes to four.
Aaron Adams, the company’s construction director who comes from Astley himself, said most people he has spoken to about the plans are "really positive".
The former Leigh Centurions director has already met with local contractors to discuss the project which will have a workforce of up to 400 people at its peak.
And he promises the majority of workers will come from within the borough.
“We will be looking to employ as many local companies as we can and make sure the bulk of the workforce comes from the Wigan borough,” he said.
“The economic benefit both during and after construction will be significant.”
Adams believes businesses will benefit from hundreds of workers spending money in the town centre during the three-year construction programme.
But as shops shut during the demolition of the Galleries, some say they will lose much of their customer base – people who work in the town centre.
Market traders have been critical of the plans to reduce the number of retailers in the town centre in favour of building hundreds of new flats.
They do not believe having fewer shops will bring more people into the town.
Some are now demanding a rent-free period over the first few months of the year which could see Covid-related restrictions affecting retail reintroduced.
Wigan council has agreed to offer a discount on fees of up to 30 per cent if market traders can provide bank statements proving they have made financial losses.
But one trader who has run a clothes stall at Wigan Market for 30 years fears it might be too late, saying many businesses will be forced to close if they wait.
“A lot of traders have been here a long time,” he said. “We’ve given millions and millions of pounds to [the council].
“We didn’t ask for this. The people didn’t ask for it and they don’t want it.”
The uncertainty is making some market traders feel "anxious" – so much so that they have asked the local authority for support with their mental health.
One third-generation market trader said the next 12 months will be "terrifying".
She speaks of a subdued atmosphere at the market in the build up to Christmas with some customers "crying" about potential closures.
It would cost her at least £120,000 to relocate all of the equipment for her food business – which employs 12 members of staff – to the new market.
And she knows of three businesses who are already looking to leave Wigan.
“I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking, is it real?” she said. “Is this actually happening to our town?”
A proud Wiganer, this trader wants the town to "play to its strengths" by preserving its "wonderful" heritage and making it more appealing to retailers.
The closure of Debenhams, M&S and WHSmiths has been big blow to Wigan, she said, and the town needs more small independent businesses as well.
But one town centre business owner says "good ridance" to the big retailers.
Colette Parr who opened Boutique by Colette in Mesnes Street nearly four years ago supports the redevelopment despite the uncertainty it brings.
Like the market traders, she has concerns about the future of her business – particularly as the pandemic has been an ‘absolute disaster’ for retailers.
However, she believes the redevelopment has to happen – and fast.
“We need to move forward,” she said, “and we need to move forward as quickly as we possibly can because Wigan isn’t doing well at the moment.
“Look at the state of it. It’s the same for a lot of towns – Northern towns in particular.
“You’re always going to get people who don’t want change.
“They’re not going to get it 100 pc right. But I would rather see progress.
“I don’t see that we have a choice.”
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