'The New Shopping Street' makes shopping fun again

Dutch town of Helmond brings people back to the city centre

Cheap parking, more street terraces and monthly events: the Dutch city of Helmond in the Brabant province is on a mission to make its city centre more appealing to shoppers, diners and clubbers. The growing number of visitors shows that its efforts have paid off. So what's the secret? The town's business owners have joined forces in an initiative known as 'The New Shopping Street'. Rabobank is supporting the initiative, which is so successful that it's being replicated by other business owners throughout the Netherlands.

'The retailers and bar and restaurant owners in Helmond's city centre have certainly known some good times,' says Marlène Drouen of Centrum Management Helmond, an organisation dedicated to improving the quality of life in Helmond's city centre. 'However, in recent years they have seen a decline in foot traffic, and some retailers were even forced to shut down their businesses, so some buildings are now vacant. Local businesses became anxious and felt that something needed to happen, that we should all do more to promote our city. Of course, there should be something there worth promoting first – your city centre should have something special to offer, including all sorts of exciting activities. And that's something you really need to organise yourself.'

String of street terraces

But how do you go about that? Although there was no shortage of business owners willing to put their shoulders to the wheel in a revitalisation plan for the city centre, the problem was Helmond had too many disjointed initiatives, such as City Centre Management, Helmond Marketing and the Helmond Business Owners Steering Committee. While they were brimming with good ideas, they lacked a cohesive strategy. Rabobank therefore suggested a partnership with 'The New Shopping Street', an independent platform that hires the services of experts to create practical strategies to ensure that retail areas remain viable in the future. A total of 36 business owners, the local authorities and several property owners entered into talks in early 2015 and went on to draft a concrete action plan.

The first plans to be implemented were immediately successful. Hugo Molleman, the owner of a local food establishment, gives an example, 'The city, after consulting local businesses, decided to relax its policies for street terraces and advertising signs. Whereas before businesses had to keep the streets clear, now restaurants located in a particular street were free to join all their terraces together, creating a 'string' of seating. This not only transformed the entire appearance of the street, but it actually really added to the mood as well.'

The repurposed retail premises in the area are another example. Clothing shop owner Guus van Oorschot Jr says, 'You sometimes see vacant buildings around the city centre. While in the smaller streets leading to the centre you might see a scattering of little shops. One particular business in Helmond, a deli specialising in Spanish products which was located in one of those back streets, ended up relocating to the city centre. The owner got in touch with the real estate agents through the De Nieuwe Winkelstraat network. It worked out perfectly. The owner was eager to set up shop in the city centre where he would have room for a terrace.'

Dragon boats and frog men

In an effort to further increase the appeal of the area, every month was given a different theme, including, so far: 'Technology', 'Culture', 'Automotive' (in a nod to the nearby tech campus specialising in this area). June was 'Water Month' and events organised around this theme included dragon-boat races and a demonstration of the local diving club in the Helmond Canal. The city went all out with the theme on the last Sunday of the month. To eliminate barriers and encourage people to visit the city centre, the city of Helmond introduced a special card which visitors can use to save on parking each time they make a purchase. Visitors already pay no parking fees for the second hour on weekdays – an attempt by local businesses to entice people to stay and shop a little longer.

All these efforts have certainly paid off. Over a one-year period, foot traffic increased by 16 percent, to over 1,3 million visitors in early 2015. Hans van den Eerenbeemt, SME Manager for Rabobank Helmond says, 'Everyone is extremely pleased about these improvements and we are proud to have been able to contribute to them.'

Rabobank Helmond introduced the 'The New Shopping Street' concept to Helmond retailers and other business owners, brought the parties together and has been facilitating the project, for example by making meeting rooms available and getting people from the bank's network involved. Van den Eerenbeemt says, 'A project like this is in keeping with Rabobank's identity as a cooperative organisation and also with our aim to strengthen our customers and their communities. Since we are so involved in the local community, we know all the parties concerned and are eager to bring them together and make things happen. But at the end of the day it's up to the businesses to get out there and do it themselves. Our job as a bank is to be there for them by providing advice and support.'

Gathering ideas in the street

A total of 75 local Rabobanks are now working with the 'The New Shopping Street' platform to ensure that local retail areas will be able to survive in the future. Business owner Hugo Molleman says, 'One of the best parts of this way of working is that the ideas come from the people themselves: the business owners and consumers. This really helps us to create support. In Helmond's city centre, for example, you've got street coordinators walking around who always know exactly what's going on and who gather ideas from people which we can then use to get ahead.'

The next step as part of the 'The New Shopping Street' concept is to develop a long-term plan, the proverbial 'dot on the horizon'. Molleman says, 'This is our way of improving the city centre in the long term. And I'm confident we're going to succeed because we've got a wealth of ideas just waiting to be developed.'

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