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Bidding for success

Nicci Brown charts the sometimes stormy course of Wimborne’s Business Improvement District scheme

This Christmas in Wimborne Santa will be joined by a new character, one who will promote one of the town’s more dubious claims to fame: its smuggling history. A legendary pirate ‘businessman’ will become a larger-than–life figure in festivities, with the tagline that he, like Santa, brought presents at the dead of night. The figure is based on 18th-century smuggler, Isaac Gulliver, whose name lives on in the High Street bookshop of Malcolm Angel, former Mayor of Wimborne and a founder director of the Wimborne BID (Business Improvement District). This body came into being in May this year when 58 per cent of Wimborne’s business-rate payers elected to support adopting BID status. Under the scheme, businesses contribute an annual levy to fund a range of aims and projects. Fellow founder-director, Martin Tidd, is currently converting one of Isaac Gulliver’s wine shops back to residential use and said that the BID team ‘hope to build on the image of Wimborne’s smuggling past as a feature for promotion of the town.’

All signs point to a thriving town; Wimborne has an awful lot to attract the visitor, but will the BID succeed in promoting the town more effectively than did the council before it?

The Wimborne BID, which was launched after a two-year development period, followed closely behind the arrival in the town centre of the Waitrose supermarket and Martin Tidd says its aim is to ‘capitalise on the Waitrose effect’. That once-controversial development, which involved the town’s cricket ground being turned into a supermarket and the cricket club itself relocated, faces one final challenge early in the new year when a retrospective attempt to declare the cricket ground a town ‘green’ – and thus make the Waitrose development illegal – will be ruled upon. Martin Tidd is sceptical: ‘The cricket ground was never a public amenity or town green, but [a town green] is what the supermarket has given us on the land surrounding it, which should soon to be linked by a bridge to Crown Mead. It has also given us a number of businesses which would never have come to Wimborne without it.’
The BID follows a similar move by the Chamber of Commerce in Dorchester, where a Business Improvement District was formed in 2007 and a town manager is now employed to promote and build on its activities. The Wimborne directors – all volunteers – plan to follow their example, but only by employing a part-time manager at a much lower salary, an appointment which is planned to be made in the new year and was advertised this autumn.
‘Dorchester,‘ says Martin Tidd, ‘had the benefit of a large grant from the Rural Development Agency, as well as support from the town, district and county councils, while the Wimborne BID has been achieved very much on a shoestring, with only district and county council funding. We had a total of £16,000, and managed to get the whole process, including the services of the Electoral Registration Society for the poll, completed for around £12,000, leaving us with some to spare.’

 

A typical day in Wimborne: the town offers a huge range of independent shops on its streets.

Another founder director and BID chairman Chris Slocock, is proprietor of the Minster Press which has traded in the town for 75 years. A past president of Dorset Chamber of Commerce, past chairman of South West Chambers of Commerce, he is currently South West representative for the British Chambers of Commerce and its advisory council. ‘In making their contribution to the BID, businesses are making an investment in the future,’ he says. ‘We all want the town to be greener, cleaner, and safer, with a vibrant business community, and will do everything we can to make a difference and get value for money for everyone.’
The BID was established to build on a four-fold approach to help businesses, and residents, to ensure that their town remains a thriving community: Marketing and promotion, events and festivals, and improving the town and business community are the aims of four sub-committees and four main budget headings, along with the cost of the BID manager. The £95,000 estimated annual cost comes from a 1.5 per cent levy on every business-rated premises within the BID boundary, including traders, charity shops, banks and building societies, pubs, medical practices and industry.
However, the BID is not entirely without its critics – as is shown by the 23 per cent vote against the proposal (42 per cent of the 54 per cent turnout) when businesses were asked to say whether they wanted it or not. But the majority decision is binding on all, and two thirds of business rate payers had already responded positively to the first levy demand by the beginning of October.

 

Below left and right A year apart: Wimborne as it was with the cricket club and the same view showing Waitrose and the public access land in the cricket club's place

One trader – who did not want to be named – said the scheme had divided business people in what had hitherto been a very united community and that, so far, little benefit had been seen by the majority. Maggie Drennan of Spill the Beans in West Street, is another not wholly convinced yet: ‘We trade in a bit of a back street of the town, which does not benefit from big events in the town centre. I am really passionate about what I do, and if something happens to undermine that, it is really disappointing.’ She added that her priority had to be her own business, and, ‘although I am quite positive about the BID, and want to get involved, I am really just hoping for the best. My reservations are that they should use the money to do something beneficial to all.’
The drive to create a Wimborne Business Improvement District (BID) was launched in 2009 by the Chamber of Trade with the backing of North Dorset MP Bob Walter. BIDs were introduced through the Local Government Act 2003 to give businesses a larger say in how their area is managed and their money spent. Funds raised through the levy on all, large and small, are ring-fenced to go directly to the BID company, an independent not-for-profit partnership which operates in a precisely defined geographical area and spends on improvements in that area.

 

Maggie Drennan of Spill the Beans was not wholly convinced by the BID proposal, but now hopes that it will work for the benefit of all businesses

Unlike business rates, on whose spending the paying businesses have no say, the BID money is spent in a way that is decided by the businesses themselves. The BID Committee works towards pinpointing and delivering additional services and projects of benefit to local businesses which help to improve trade within the town’s commercial area. The BID boundary includes a total of 338 busineses, 178 of whom voted in the poll to establish the scheme. A total of 96 were in favour, and 82 against. ‘To continue, we needed 50 per cent of the total of rateable value to support it,’ said Martin Tidd. ‘There was no set turnout target, but we set ourselves our own of 50 per cent of businesses, and we achieved both. Although the majority seems small, we are told it is one of the strongest majorities for a BID there has been.’
The cost to a business of the BID ranges from around £50 a year for lower rates businesses up to £10,000 for the largest. ‘For the average business, it is no more than one average size advertisement a year,’ said Martin Tidd. The elected board of directors now comprises the four founding directors, including Paul Thomas, a partner at Thomas & Woolven accountants, together with Peter Fowler, bridal-wear shop owner, Samantha Everard, shoe-shop owner, Jean Cording, hair stylist Eileen Worth, East Dorset District councillor Malcolm Birr, and Waitrose food retail trainer, Richard Heading. They are pursuing a five year plan to promote the town, encourage more visitors and residents to spend there, improve information, develop more events, and bring in more funding.
The first levy due became payable for the twelve month period in one lump sum from 1 August, and is collected by East Dorset District Council, which as a non-domestic ratepayer itself for car parks and facilities contributes £2,100 a year in addition to the £5,000 it has given to the BID process over the last two years.
 

Isaac Gulliver, one of Wimborne's most famous former residents, will be the model on whom the new 'Pirate businessman' promotional figure will be based

In the first year there are plans to improve the signage, set up a new website and boost the town at Christmas with finance for the Chamber of Trade’s Christmas lights scheme. BID directors have also entered into a five-year sponsorship deal with the Wimborne Militia, which makes a musket-bearing appearance at civic events and whose help is being sought to welcome coach parties to the town.
The BID has already developed its role as an effective voice in campaigning for businesses in the town, in particular over the Highways Agency’s £5.7 million Canford Bottom and A31 improvement scheme bringing day and night closures of four local roads until next spring. BID directors won local business representation in the planning process to mitigate the impact. Like Waitrose itself, the BID is now a fact of Wimborne life and it is very much up to all the businesses in Wimborne to make it a success, whether they were initially in favour of it or not.
Pic 3 credit: Pauline A. Stevens

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