A nationwide hunt for new businesses to takeover Union Street’s 47 empty shops is to be launched as part of a major operation aimed at bringing the Granite Mile back to life.
For years shutters have been coming down across the city’s main thoroughfare and buildings have fallen into disrepair.
In a desperate bid to turn it around former FTSE 100 chief executive, Bob Keiller has been drafted in to lead Our Union Street – a new community-led initiative created to re-energise the city.
The idea emerged at an emergency summit organised by Aberdeen Inspired in November last year.
Its purpose was to come up with solutions to help overturn the fortunes of the dilapidated street.
Mr Keiller told The Press and Journal that it would be a “massive challenge” to reverse what amounts to years of decline.
But said he believed it was possible if the city and an army of volunteers came together and “rolled their sleeves up” to make it happen.
Public encouraged to roll sleeves up, grab a bucket of soapy water and help clean up Union Street
As well as using a team of experts in marketing to pitch Union Street to businesses around the world, Mr Keiller hopes to build a community which can deliver “a thousand small steps for the city centre that, collectively, can make a big difference for Aberdeen”.
He said: “People have been vocal in saying how much they care about the demise of Union Street, but clearly, just being vocal about it isn’t enough to change it.
“So now we’ve got an opportunity to do things, and people can either keep being vocal and do nothing. Or they can get their sleeves up and grab a bucket of soapy water and a wire brush, and come and help.”
While it would be possible to hire contractors to deep clean the buildings Mr Keiller said he does not believe that would be the best use of money where people who care could give up hard graft for free.
He said: “The State of Union Street could be improved. But if you were to hire lots and lots of professional contractors to do that, whatever money you had would be would be sucked up like that.
“If we can engage people to volunteer their time, and if we can get properly organised, then we can go bit by bit and begin to paint the peeling paintwork, remove the graffiti, clean up the pavement, remove the chewing gum.
“Bit by bit, by bit, until eventually, you think actually, you know what, there’s a difference being made here.”
‘Not realistic’ for council to prioritise cleaning Union Street over saving vital services
Mr Keiller said it was not realistic to expect Aberdeen City Council to prioritise the cleaning of Union Street over other vital services.
And if we didn’t want to continue to see further decline the time was now for the public to take ownership of their city centre.
“The reason that we can’t rely on somebody else to do all this is that, quite frankly, there’s not enough money in the system,” he said.
“The council’s got huge challenges in terms of how they use the funds that they’ve got and are under huge pressures from every angle.
“And for one minute, I would not pretend that health and social care and education are not higher priorities than making Union Street look better.
“So it’s not reasonable to think that the council’s got all this money floating about that they could spend on this.
“Who else is therefore going to do anything about it? The landlords perhaps, but that hasn’t happened. The shopkeepers perhaps, but that hasn’t happened. So maybe somebody else needs to lead by example.”
The organisation is being established as a collaboration between Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, Aberdeen Inspired, Aberdeen City Council and Opportunity North East, with additional support from Shell, which recently relocated to the street.
They will look to raise capital and provide the governance for the not-for-profit organisation, which is in the early stages of being set-up.
The partners said they wanted a “unifying and collaborative figure” to lead the effort and approached Mr Keiller, who has agreed to provide his services for free.
A new website – ourunionstreet.com – has been created to allow residents and businesses to get in touch to share their thoughts on how they believe the city centre could be improved.
As well as its army of volunteers, Our Union Street will take a proactive approach to filling the 47 empty shops on Union Street, and will shortly be launching a “nationwide hunt” for new businesses.
The goal is to approach businesses currently operating in other cities that they believe would be a good fit for Aberdeen.
Expert team would tell Union Street’s story nationwide
Its expert team would then go and pitch the Granite City as somewhere they could benefit from expanding into.
“The economy here, actually, when you look at is not in an awfully bad state compared to other parts of the country and there’s lots of great things happening.
“The energy transition zone, all the A listed buildings in the middle of Aberdeen are now getting close to full and there are more people working back in the city centre.
“So all of these factors lead you to the conclusion that people like Six by Nico have got it right with their restaurant on Union Street and they’re planning on opening another outlet.”
But success stories like this are what Mr Keiller believes needs to be shared more widely to sell the city’s best attributes to the rest of the country.
He added: “Getting out there and marketing the place through the right channels consistently and persistently is key so all it takes is the right person to say, yeah, we’re interested.
“So far, we think that our priorities should be focussed on filling the empty retail units – supported by the council’s £500,000 investment in its empty shops plan – and, in the meantime, making the empty units look less abandoned and unloved.”
For more information on how you can get involved visit www.ourunionstreet.com.