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One year on: What difference has Our Union Street made in bid to save Aberdeen city centre?

One year after the group was formed, bosses Bob Keiller and Derrick Thomson reveal what progress they have made so far - and what comes next.

Our Union Street bosses Bob Keiller and Derrick Thomson.
Bob Keiller and Derrick Thomson. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson.

An iguana is swishing its way through the sand at breakneck speed, pursued by a den of snakes slithering after it just as quickly.

It’s that famous David Attenborough clip, which has become almost universally known since it aired a few years ago.

After a nerve-jangling chase, it ends with the terrified reptile making a miraculous escape.

The creature’s desperate efforts on an island off the coast of Ecuador continue to serve as inspiration 6,000 miles away in Aberdeen.

One might think that the British broadcaster’s exploration of the wild couldn’t possibly have anything to do with efforts to rejuvenate the Granite Mile.

But Our Union Street bosses Bob Keiller and Derrick Thomson would beg to differ.

Exactly one year ago, the business leaders took on the challenge of “reversing years of decline” and restoring Union Street to its former glory.

Pointing towards the TV screen, as we all breathe a sigh of relief on behalf of that South American reptile, they explain to me that they are the iguana in this situation.

Image: Norman Adams/Aberdeen City Council.

The hostile environment is Aberdeen city centre. The snakes? Take your pick…

They’re the combined forces of plummeting footfall, shops closing, a continuing cost-of-living crisis and even social media negativity.

However, like the plucky iguana, they appear to be making it. And today they’re marking one year since the group got started.

It all started with a big Union Street summit where business leaders were asked to debate their own ideas on the short-term fix for Aberdeen city centre. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

In our exclusive interview, the founders revealed:

  • They are making headway in filling the empty units littering the Granite Mile, with Aberdeen now boasting a below average number
  • How they responded to M&S closing its flagship
  • Why volunteers recently spent hours doing up a vacant shop
  • And what is coming up next…

‘We started off by focusing on small things that can make big difference’

Scrolling over a colourful presentation with an abundance of graphs and tables, Bob begins to take me through what they have achieved in the past 12 months.

We are in their Union Terrace Gardens pavilion, just a stone’s throw away from the subject of their ambitious project – the struggling Granite Mile.

What started as an idea last March is now a major operation with about 400 volunteers.

Our Union Street’s Bob Keiller, Derrick Thomson and Honey Keenan chat with Denny about their visions and plans for Union Street. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

And their projects range from filling empty Union Street units and sprucing up unsightly buildings, to a campaign marketing Aberdeen as “the place to be”.

It’s all in the name of making the high street a vibrant place for residents, visitors and traders.

“It’s about doing thousands of little things that make a difference,” Bob says.

“Instead of trying to figure out how to get a big city centre event that brings 10,000 for one weekend, we focus on coming up with things that can bring people in every day.”

Our Union Street has received around 14,900 hours of voluntary support since the group’s launch last year. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

With a thoughtful look, Derrick adds: “There is no reason why Aberdeen can’t be like Berlin or other big European cities…

“You come here for a weekend and enjoy a phenomenal amount of activities from a Thursday night to a Monday morning ,and you leave the city thinking ‘Wow’.”

So they rolled up their sleeves and began plotting how to do just that…

How The Press and Journal reported the launch of Our Union Street. Image: Mhorvan Park/DC Thomson.

Has there been any progress with the empty Union Street units?

The first – and perhaps most important – endeavor on their agenda last March was to come up with a plan for the vacant outlets on Union Street.

Finding new owners for 46 empty units – or 24% of the Granite Mile – was a big promise, Bob admits.

The high street had suffered many blows, and more came in the months that followed – with the closure of Lush, Halifax, Caffe Nero and WH Smith.

The former Caffe Nero shop has since been taken over by Black Sheep Coffee. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson.

But they were determined not to let that put them off.

For the last 12 months, Bob and Derrick have been on a nationwide hunt for traders, coming up with different perks that could lure them into the city centre.

As a result, they have gone from 53 to 25 properties that are up for grabs, with dozens of new businesses opting to put their faith and money into Union Street – though some are yet to open.

These range from hospitality venues like the newly opened 474 by Cup and German Doner Kebab, to salons, jewellery stores and clothing outlets.

And everybody has played their part in this.

The facade of the new TAG Heauer on Union Street.
Jamieson & Carry also recently opened a new TAG Heuer boutique on Union Street. Image: Jamieson & Carry.

Aberdeen City Council introduced certain perks for those taking on empty units, including a £500,000 grant scheme to help traders make the move.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government now offers one year free of rates for new tenants.

Our Union Street has also compiled a handy spreadsheet with all of the available units in the city centre to help business owners make the right choice.

And more than 20 existing traders have also got on board to offer help to new tenants.

Union Street council grant scheme.
The council topped up the £500,000 scheme with another half a million from its latest budget. Image: DC Thomson

“Our job has been to shine light on all of these opportunities and make the move as easy as possible,” Bob says.

“The main thing has been coaching potential tenants upfront, helping them figure out exactly what they would need – size and shape of the units, how much it would cost, etc.

“It has been a collective effort, and awareness of opportunities has improved hugely.”

But what about the ones that are still empty?

Showing me another graph with numbers and percentages, Bob points out that Aberdeen has now dipped below the UK average for high street vacancy.

“But 25 empty units on Union Street is still too many,” he adds with an unsatisfied glance at the monitor.

“And going forward, there might be another four or five that we still don’t know about.”

He goes on to say that a big part of their recovery strategy is making the empty properties – as well as the whole length of the Granite Mile – look nicer.

The aim is to make these places attractive – even if they are still unoccupied.

Their first transformation project was at 164 Union Street, which has now been cleaned, freshly repainted and equipped with new signage.

Our Union Street volunteers sanded and painted the frontage of unit 164, placing a new temporary sign while it awaits its new owner. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.
This is how the unit used to look. Wullie Marr/ DC Thomson.

While it awaits its new owner, the unit will also be home to a new display showcasing the history of Aberdeen, which will be painted by the Graffiti Grannies.

And this is just one piece of puzzle.

‘Let’s keep the city sparkling’

Huge effort has gone into harnessing people power to keep Aberdeen sparkling.

Last week, more than 50 volunteers donned an Our Union Street hi-viz and pair of gloves to scrub the city centre clean.

It’s the second time residents banded together to breathe new life into their beloved Granite Mile and give it a bit of a polish.

Activities included litter picking and weeding at Union Terrace Gardnes. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

The first session targeted St Nicholas kirkyard, with mounds of leaves, weeds and branches bundled up and removed from the historic spot.

And this time around, the scope was even wider.

As well as the kirkyard, the community-minded crew spent hours weeding, sweeping and picking up rubbish at Union Terrace Gardens.

Everybody was hard at work on a Sunday morning…Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.
All of the street furniture on the Granite Mile was cleaned, and lampposts painted. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

Meanwhile, another team focused on Union Street – dusting off the grey pavements, and giving bins, lampposts and shop frontages a bit of TLC.

Beaming big smiles, they all said they wanted to “give back” to the city.

And it is exactly this enthusiasm that keeps Bob and Derrick going.

The St Nicholas kirkyard got another clean-up, too. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

Have there been any challenges?

But there is always trouble in paradise – and the Our Union Street’s campaign to regenerate Aberdeen city centre is no different.

As Bob says: “Some people will never be happy regardless of what we do.”

Losing retail giants like Debenhams and John Lewis threw residents into despair in the last few years, with many claiming they will no longer come into the city centre.

The rollout of the bus gates, more shops closing and the imminent introduction of the LEZ have also cast a shadow on the future of Union Street.

The issues facing Aberdeen city centre were discussed far and wide. Image: Mhorvan Park/DC Thomson.

And each of these have been dubbed the “final nail in the coffin” for the city centre.

But Bob and Derrick’s answer to all of that is: “We can’t change the past, we can only move forward”.

As we move on to another slide, Bob says: “It’s a tough challenge that we are facing here, but doesn’t dissuade us.”

From left, Our Union Street bosses Bob Keiller and Derrick Thomson pictured on Union Street. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson.

“It’s kind of like an icebreaker,” Derrick chips in with another metaphor.

“We are charting our way through a frozen land, and we will keep on ploughing through all the things that keep hitting us from all directions.

“Bottom line is we want to be here, and choose to help rather than sit and complain.”

‘We focus on what we CAN do’

Their secret weapon is their constant conversation with people to know how they feel and what they care about.

From there, it’s only a matter of brainstorming ideas on how to overcome the problems.

And this is the mindset they intend to keep.

These are some of the common questions and concerns raised with Bob and Derrick. Image: Our Union Street.

Bob says: “We’d be naive to think that there won’t be other really difficult challenges and moments in future that we think ‘Right, what do we do now?’

“But the advantage we’ve got is that when that happens, we go ‘Well, whatever it is, we’ll find a way forward and keep looking at what we CAN do rather than what we can’t’.”

Was the closure of M&S really the ‘final nail in the coffin’ for Aberdeen?

The business leaders’ optimism wasn’t hindered even upon the news that Marks and Spencer plans to abandon their city centre branch at St Nicholas Square.

Despite the closure coinciding with the £15m revamp of the Union Square branch, this has been the latest “final nail in the coffin” for Aberdeen city centre – according to some residents.

Marks and Spencer on St Nicholas Street will close by spring 2024. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

But like many, Bob expected this to happen sooner or later.

“It just makes business sense,” he says, dismissing the doom and gloom.

“The existence of large department stores has shrunk hugely over the years – not just in Aberdeen but everywhere else as well.

“People might see this as a showstopper, but in reality when every other department store closed in the city centre, life went on – and it will continue to go on.”

Our Union Street boss Bob Keiller
Bob wasn’t surprised by Marks and Spencer’s announcement. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson.

Derrick adds that while it might be sad to lose M&S, the retailer’s departure might open space for “new, young and eclectic businesses” wanting to do something different there.

In the grand scheme of things, they consider these to be “short-term” issues in the long-standing history of Union Street.

And the biggest asset they have in their fight to save the Granite Mile is the passion Aberdonians have for their city.

Our Union Street boss Derrick Thomson.
Derrick says there is passion and pride in a lot of Aberdonians that is now bubbling to the surface again. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Bob says: “If we were unable to fill the empty units, or attract any volunteers, or get people to come on a Sunday morning to pull weeds and paint lampposts, then you would say there is no point because people don’t care.

“But people do care – and in large numbers.

“And that’s what gives us optimism, that despite the challenges we’ve seen – and the ones that we are yet to see – we will succeed and make a difference.”

Have you noticed much change in Aberdeen city centre? Let us know in our comments section below.

What’s next?

As we wind up our hour-long chat, Bob and Derrick say their biggest success so far has been seeing the change in people’s perception of Union Street.

There is a lot more work to be done, but as per usual, they are not short of ideas.

In the weeks to come, Our Union Street hopes to launch a new website to better market the remaining empty units in the city centre and target even more traders.

Union Street
The group’s next step would be looking at the upper floors of Union Street buildings. Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson.

By this time next year, they hope to bring the number of vacant properties down to 15.

And once they feel they’ve done everything they can for Union Street on ground level, they will move on to the upper floors.

The group is also digging deeper into the rich heritage of the Silver City, harvesting interesting stories from the past that can lure more visitors to the north-east.

All of these could be presented through social media, apps, tours and events.

And there are many more things in the pipeline that are yet to be revealed.

As the final slide of the presentation goes black, Bob casts his mind back to how it all started 12 months ago.

Our Union Street bosses Derrick Thomson and Bob Keiller.
Our Union Street bosses Derrick Thomson and Bob Keiller are determined to keep going. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson.

“It’s been very positive and uplifting,” he smiles.

“When we started this journey, we asked people for their input – and we could have had a situation where nobody took the time to tell us what they care about.

“But instead 1,700 people answered all of our questions, and 1,200 said they are ready to help us, without even knowing what exactly we would be doing.

“That for me was the biggest success – the endorsement upfront – and that’s what makes a difference and keeps us going.

“So as long as we have people willing to talk to us, we will stick at it.”

Anyone who wants to share ideas with Our Union Street can get in touch on their website or pop by their base at the Union Terrace Gardens pavilion.