Page last updated at 08:10 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Town fights shopping 'negativity'

Shop in Holyhead with To Let sign
Some businesses are combining to set up a business forum to lobby for rate relief to counter the effect of so many empty shops.

Around 39% of shops in Holyhead on Anglesey will be empty by the start of February, according to the credit reference company Experian. This is four times the UK average.

Wena Alun Owen was taken on a tour by the mayor of a town where the closure of Woolworths at the end of December was seen as the last straw.

The chat in the internet cafe is lively, hope for the future and remembering the past.

Holyhead's mayor was taking me around the credit-crunch hit town, reminiscing about the shops of her youth.

With her was the honorary secretary of the local maritime museum, with whom she has been a friend since childhood.

The Experian survey found the Anglesey town will have the joint highest shop vacancies - with Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire - by next month.

But the town's message was defiant.

"Yes, there are problems here, but it's no different to other towns, and some things are even improving," said Ailia Lewis, 68.

Mayor Ailia Lewis is a lollipop lady
The mayor, Ailia Lewis MBE, has been a lollipop lady for 30 years

Her friend, John Cave, 74, said it was unfair when the town was singled out as particularly depressed.

Mrs Lewis, the mayor, has been a councillor for 20 years and a school lollipop lady for 30.

She's been awarded an MBE for her community work.

"There is a shadow hanging over the town because of what is happening at Anglesey Aluminium [jobs could go when the Wylfa Nuclear Power station closes in 2010 as the plant relies on cheap electricity from the plant]," she said.

"If they stay, and please God they do, then it will give us a bit of a boost," she added.

Mr Cave, also an MBE, would like to see more bistros and restaurants open.

Both lament the closure of Woolworths.

"It was so exciting when it opened in the early 50s because before then we'd go to Woollies in Chester, and later in Bangor," he said.

The once disputed Celtic Gateway bridge which links the railway station and ferry port to the town centre is now much accepted, and well used.

Sandtra Stewart
I'm hoping that things will pick up in the summer, especially as they're saying that more people will holiday in the UK, and I'm going to try evening opening
Sandra Stewart, Internet Cafe, Holyhead

"There is a good community here, there are good football teams here for instance," said the mayor.

"Holyhead Hotspurs get 300 watching them on a Saturday and there's talk of a link between them a team in Dun Laoghaire to make the most of the Welsh/Ireland link," said Mrs Lewis.

Jewellery shop owner Alwen Kleiser has one theory why Holyhead may fare better than some during the downturn.

"We're still here because of the support of the local people," she said.

Irene Edwards runs the fish shop which originally opened in 1930.

"The pedestrianisation of the shopping area was the worst idea for us.

"What we need is a couple of decent stores to come here to get people into the town," she said.

Butcher Richard Roberts runs his family business which was set up in 1936.

Olwen Kleiser
I feel we never had the highs during the boom years, so we are on more of an even keel
Alwen Kleiser, Kleiser's jewellery shop

"Parking is an issue here, what we need are old-fashioned pavements with parking on one side," he said.

"It's sad to see the town now, it looks better maybe but that's not helping business," he added.

"Things are quieter because I used to employ three girls in the shop, but now I can do the work myself because there isn't the volume of people coming in," said John Jones from M + E Stores.

Customer Kirsty Queen, 25, said she was looking for a job.

"The way things are going I think it will end up being full of charity shops and people won't come into town anymore," she said.

Some businesses are combining to set up a business forum to lobby for rate relief to counter the effect of so many empty shops.

"What annoys me is that people come here and highlight the empty shops, just focusing on the bad," said Ian Ashworth from the Chocolate Box newsagents.

"Every town is in this recession, I live in Bangor and the same thing is happening on the high street there.

"I'm fortunate I have a good business here, it's not all doom and gloom," he added.

Cruise ships

Sue Williams, from Gateway Restaurant, agreed.

"It's a good community here, but there's so much negativity, it's a shame," she said.

But even in a recession there are lighter moments.

Cruise ships now stop in the port to allow tourists a quick view of north Wales.

The mayor remembers how she was approached by two people keen to photograph 'Caernarfon Castle'.

Unfortunately, they had been directed to the Holyhead pub of the same name, not the ancient monument 28 miles (46 km) away in Caernarfon.

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