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Debate on future of Aberdeen business improvement district heats up

Council leader Jenny Laing and Aberdeen Inspired chief executive Adrian Watson
Council leader Jenny Laing and Aberdeen Inspired chief executive Adrian Watson

Passionate debate about who should lead city centre businesses through the next five years and the Covid recovery kicked off last night as a ballot opened on the future of Aberdeen Inspired.

A month-long ballot of premise owners within business improvement district (Bid) launched yesterday, as the current five-year term comes to an end for Aberdeen Inspired.

Leading businessmen last night praised the organisation and urged people to back the initiative for another five years – while others demanded its demise.

The Bid covers the length of Union Street, up to John Street in the north to Union Square in the south.

By charging a mandatory extra 1% on business rates for qualifying firms, the trade association has taken in around £1 million annually from around 800 businesses within its footprint.

The Super Scurry NuArt piece in Willowbank Road, Aberdeen
The Super Scurry NuArt piece in Willowbank Road, Aberdeen

Aberdeen Inspired was the driving force behind bringing the Nuart street art festival – and with it around 30,000 visitors and £10m “marketing value” – to the city in recent years; as well as Restaurant Week, which recently bolstered hospitality takings by 25%, and Aberdeen’s comedy and jazz festivals.

And due to the “challenging times” brought about by the pandemic, the levy has been halved to only 0.5% between 2021 and 2022.

In the last year alone, Aberdeen Inspired brought £2m into the city centre in additional funding.

If returned for another five years, owners of all premises with a rateable value of more than £27,499 will have to pay – but they will get a vote for each qualifying property.

The 1% levy is already claimed to be the lowest in the country, around £5 a week on average, or – as Aberdeen Inspired stated earlier in the week – the price of two cups of coffee.

But Mike Wilson, head of Epic Group which owns Chaophraya, the Monkey House, Prohibition and The Priory in the city centre, said they will be culpable for much more.

He said: “If it’s only a few cups of coffee, I’ll buy them two cups of coffee every week if they pay my Bid levy.

“Every business is struggling and this is burdening them with additional financial impediments that could be make or break.

“My view is Aberdeen city centre without a shadow of a doubt needs support and TLC but we need professionals doing that.

“Not painting buildings – long term structural change as opposed to a quango skimming 1% on top of everyone’s rates.”

Mr Wilson added: “I urge businesses not to support the renewal of the bid, without structural change.”

For the ballot to stand, Aberdeen Inspired will require a 25% turnout of eligible business owners, but also a 25% representation of the total rateable value to have voted.

A simple 50% majority is required for its renewal, with voting closing at 5pm on June 24.

Five more years: the business chiefs backing the Bid

Meanwhile, while the anti-Bid brigade urged people to vote no, a leading figure in Scottish business threw his weight behind Aberdeen Inspired’s Back the Bid campaign.

Martin Gilbert is backing the Bid renewal in Aberdeen
Martin Gilbert is backing the Bid renewal in Aberdeen

Former chief executive of Aberdeen Standards Investments Martin Gilbert said the importance of the trade body should not be lost on people.

“We cannot underestimate the importance that Aberdeen city centre holds to the wider city and region,” he said.

“It provides employment for many thousands and its state of health is often taken as a measure of the wider north-east economic well-being.

“As a proud Aberdonian, I naturally want to see our city centre thrive, but this will require even more of a focus by the private and public sectors to effectively work together through the demanding period that lies ahead.

“Aberdeen Inspired has already demonstrated the value it brings to the heart of our city and moving forward it has a crucial role in bringing about the required change.”

And John Michie, who started the Aberdeen Bid in 2011, said he could not think of “better value for money” than the return firms get on the levy.

He told us: “I am very anxious, on behalf of the Union Street and the Bid area at the heart of the city.

“It impacts everyone, not just those who live in Aberdeen but in Aberdeenshire too.

CR0009262 Society awards 2019 at Sandman Signature Hotel, St Andrew Street, Aberdeen. Outstanding Contribution of the Year - John Michie. Picture of Presenter Adrian Watson and John Michie. Picture by KENNY ELRICK 06/11/2019
Adrian Watson, Aberdeen Inspired chief executive, and John Michie at the Society awards in 2019

“The board’s goal is the maintenance and development of our city centre and I cannot see a downside, except of course that we have to pay some money.

“But in terms of marketing and advertising I cannot think of better value for money than contributing to the Bid and in practice this year they are offering a discount.

“We are all strapped for cash just now with uncertainty over the customer base and this partnership is incredibly important.”

Council to have a major say in the ballot

City councillors will meet in just over a month to debate the local authority’s stance on the Bid.

With so many properties within the city centre zone, their several votes could prove crucial in determining the outcome – and the future path for traders, publicans, hoteliers and restaurateurs in Aberdeen.

Bid boss has say

Aberdeen Inspired chairman Adrian Watson last night said the “majority of levy-payers” are “extremely supportive” of the group and “recognise that our mission is to be the voice for city centre businesses”.

He said: “We make the most of our levy-payers’ money with a range of initiatives and programmes which benefit the city centre as a whole, such as the Aberdeen Gift Card, Restaurant Week, Inspired Nights and Nuart, which I’m sure most Aberdonians view as a highly-regarded art festival and not simply painting a few buildings. 

 “We have a responsibility to levy-payers to use their money wisely and creatively, focusing on activities, which would otherwise not happen, to make our city centre cleaner and more attractive, safer and more secure, as well as vibrant and diverse through devising and attracting events which bring people into the city centre and encourage them to stay longer and spend money.  

“Aberdeen Inspired fully recognises that not everyone is supportive of the BID and all eligible businesses have the opportunity to use their vote in the ballot.”

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