Chester has been changing for a while, writes Katrina Kerr of Chester BID, but reflection during the pandemic on what really matters to people, and a resolve to do something about it, is now having a real impact on the city.
A key catalyst to the city’s change has been Storyhouse, which has put high-quality culture literally at the heart of the city in a wonderful building that inspires everyone who enters it.
The Chester food and drink scene has also been steadily improving with a number of really top-notch chef-patron-owned restaurants complementing the flagship Michelin-starred Grosvenor. The city now has eight city centre entries in the Michelin guide, including a green star for Hypha. Chester Market offers great casual dining and several of its great street food stars are now setting up permanent premises in the city. Indeed, according to the Chester BID more businesses have opened than have closed. And the impressive Northgate development, which will house the new market and a range of other leisure facilities, is well out of the ground and scheduled for completion in summer 2022.
Hospitality has had a catastrophic Covid, but in Chester we are still seeing investors with bespoke schemes wanting to be in the city. With question marks over the future of the business travel market, these entrepreneurs are recognising that visitors are looking for both the city and, increasingly, the hotel itself to provide the perfect staycation experience – themed rooms, apartments, cottages, all with fantastic amenities and services.
Other changes have started to become apparent during the pandemic. According to Savills, demand for properties to buy and rent in Chester leapt by at least 25%. Yes, Chester is beautiful; yes, the schools are great; and yes, access to the sea and the countryside is easy, but that has always been the case. However, with a pleasant two-hour journey time, London looks commutable if you might only be going a couple of days a week and the slow Manchester rail link or grind on the M56 may also now not seem quite the headache it used to. Even simpler would be a total relocation to a cheaper office in a nicer location within a city on the up. One Lakeside and the recent Old Post Office spring to mind.
The University of Chester has a new strategy that includes the concept of a “ribbon” of teaching locations that will cross the city from North to South, ensuring more students are in the city during the day (and hopefully at night too!) and plans are now well advanced for a much stronger link between the city and the railway station. Even the historic Rows are having a major wash and brush up to make them easier to navigate and a more attractive place to live or have a business.
So, things are really starting to change. But there is room for others to get involved.
Housebuilders: people of all ages and household types would love to live in the city or at least in walking or cycling distance.
Office developers: there is not enough flexible office space to encourage start-ups or scale-ups (an incubator or accelerator would be good too!).
Environmentalists: Chester is up for a really innovative sustainable transport strategy – it should be possible, it’s not that big!
And visionaries: the amount and profile of the retail scene still requires some smart thinking.
What Chester now has is a massive amount of positive energy and lots of “think-the-unthinkable” thinking around the opportunities that we have been presented with. It would be great if more people fancy joining in.
- Katrina Kerr is chair of Chester BID. Katrina spoke at Place North West’s recent Cheshire Development Update – read the full summary