Town planner Craig Mackay believes it is time for Elgin to embrace its position as a “university city” to help its historic heart bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.
High Streets across the country have been devastated by Covid-19 with both national chains and smaller firms struggling to survive.
Elgin has not been immune with retailers Clarks, Burton, Game and Edinburgh Woolen Mill and others shutting up shop in the last year.
Student population would sustain new businesses
Mr Mackay, managing director of architectural consultants and town planners CM Design, thinks it is time to “encourage courage” among developers.
While walking on the High Street in recent months, the 51-year-old has noticed scores of empty spaces in upper floors above both occupied and empty retail units.
And Mr Mackay believes enticing students to start calling the town centre home could be the first step in creating a thriving new future for Elgin.
“We need to bring back that desire to head into the city centre and the ingredients are all there.”
Craig Mackay, managing director CM Design
He said: “Elgin’s centre is simply stunning – in history and appearance – it perhaps surpasses the celebrated beauty of other university towns such as St Andrews.
“It has the most stunning and an iconic centrepiece in St Giles Church.
“It has historic lanes, buildings and stories in every direction. Elgin could easily become a go-to university city if the correct mix of courses, degrees and lecturers could be attracted to the university, which is within walking distance of our centre.
“Empty properties above the emptying high street shops could become high-earning student accommodation paid for by government student grants.
“If there’s a student population in the centre then new artisan shops, cafes, bars, delicatessens, butchers, bakers and small retail will pop up around them. It can be opened to tourists outside term-time too.
“We need to bring back that desire to head into the centre and the ingredients are all there.”
‘Era of large retail is over’
The crises facing high streets across the north and north-east led to the Press and Journal and Evening Express launching a Save Our Shops campaign.
The issue has led to calls to draw up a vision of what Aberdeen’s city centre will look like in the future following the withdrawal of John Lewis.
Mr Mackay believes the era of big retail stores in Elgin is “clearly over”.
Big empty units have proved hardest to shift in the centre in recent years while efforts to fill smaller vacancies have proved successful.
Before the pandemic, Elgin had a 6.8% vacancy rate in the centre – nearly half the Scottish average at the time of 12.9%.
To fill larger gaps, Moray Council is considering redeveloping the former Junner’s toy shop, which closed in January 2016, into flats after repeated attempts to sell the building at auction have failed to attract sufficient interest.
Meanwhile, the former Jailhouse nightclub has been a shell since a fire tore through it in 1998.
Mr Mackay, who is originally from Thurso, said: “When I moved here, Elginers would go up town on Saturdays because it was the thing to do – it was where you met people and for no other reason but to go there.
“Large retail is never going to come back, that age is clearly over, and there’s an argument that perhaps it never should come back.
“Batchen Street is an excellent example of how a street can become a destination of choice. Ultimately, great retailers make a greater centre
“The High Street could follow suit if the right mix of residents and small retailers and businesses could be encouraged.
“There’s an opportunity to develop a cafe culture in Elgin like never before.
“Batchen Street is again an excellent of example of where traffic management could allow tables and chairs to come out, once the scaffolding at Poundland comes down.
“We should be encouraging courage among businesses and developers. From my experience, Moray Council is proactive and keen to see development in the centre and offer assistance to help address compliance requirements.”
Striking the balance between heritage and development
Efforts have been made in recent years to encourage business owners to revitalise their town centre properties.
A conservation area regeneration scheme (Cars) helped lever £2.5million of investment to repair 53 properties between 2013 and 2018.
However, the support only provided 50% of the cost for the project, meaning some property owners remained either unable or unwilling to invest.
Meanwhile, a protracted planning wrangle developed after attempts to demolish a former High Street tackle shop were initially blocked by Historic Environment Scotland and the Scottish Government – before being approved.
And retailer Poundland eventually bought its Elgin base, making it the only property the national chain actually owns, to fund its own repairs.
Mr Mackay said: “Historic buildings need a lot of due diligence.
“I had some involvement in the High Street building Historic Environment Scotland had issues with over the years – it had a lot of plans drawn up for flats before one got approved.
“In this country we’re quite proud of protecting historic buildings and if they do come down it’s only when every opportunity to save them has been exhausted – and I think that’s right.
“Money is always the biggest hurdle. The Cars scheme could have led to the whole High Street being redeveloped but it was still unaffordable for some even with 50% support.
“What is missing at the moment is the end value of property both in terms of re-sale and rental and only student use or tourist use can change this.”
Moray College UHI: Elgin is becoming a ‘modern university town’
Efforts are already underway to expand Moray College UHI’s offering as well as transform Elgin for visitors and residents alike.
A draft town centre centre masterplan has been unveiled by Moray Council with aspirations of completely transforming Cooper Park while improving links between it and the High Street.
Key empty buildings, including to former Junners toy shop and Jailhouse nightclub, have been identified to be redeveloped as flats with potential spaces for cafes and restaurants.
Growth deal bid to encourage students to Moray
The ambitious vision comes while the Moray Growth Deal is being finalised, which will lead to £65 million of Scottish and UK government funding being spent in the region with refurbishments of Elgin Town Hall and Grant Lodge due to be funded.
One of the other projects includes developing a new aerospace campus for Moray College UHI at RAF Lossiemouth to increase access to jobs for locals while encouraging others to move to the region for training.
Moray College UHI principal and chief executive David Patterson said: “Recent developments across the University of the Highlands and Islands combined with future plans here at Moray College UHI are part of a drive to attract more students into the area, as well as meeting the developing needs of our own local community
“Our curriculum continues to grow in response to industry requirements in areas such a healthcare, with the introduction of the only integrative healthcare degree in Scotland, and with new and expanded offers becoming available in optometry, engineering and advanced manufacturing, the creative and performing arts, and in the support of digital and business-related skills.
“As visitors enter Elgin they are reminded that this is an ancient cathedral city. We need to make sure they are also aware that at the same time we are becoming a modern university town.”