Keeping the town centre vibrant, supporting traders and offering entertainment to shoppers is never easy, but Elaine Dodd (now Webster) enjoyed that challenge for nearly a decade. Moving the war memorial, welcoming Ken Dodd to Crewe and fighting the recession ensured that there was never a dull moment…
“My working life has been with the Council, covering parks administration and then promotion of the Crewe Carnival for many years. I joined the Town Centre Management team just after the Millennium celebrations, initially based at the Municipal Buildings. When the Deputy Chief Executive’s role disappeared we were moved to the Pyms Lane depot along with other Works teams. That meant we had the people and resources around us to respond to things quickly.”
Town Centre Management meant running three very distinct areas of the old borough. “My role covered the centre of Crewe, Nantwich Road and Nantwich town centre – all very different in their own way. There were lots of initiatives ongoing in and around Nantwich and I found that many of the traders were keen to help out. Crewe was very different, and along with assistant Sue Togay (later to be Jennifer Anderson) we had to work hard to gain their trust. We improved the marketing and encouraged traders to get involved. Retaining footfall was important, as was creating literature that gave customers a reason to visit the shops again. Nantwich is made up of smaller independent traders, who can make decisions quickly as they know their customers and what works for them. Many of the Crewe stores are different, part of regional or national chains. The Head Office usually holds the purse strings. Also, once trained in Crewe, personnel often move on to other towns or cities, so it’s hard to maintain good contacts. As a result, Crewe town centre promotions were often fragmented with some shops not involved.”
Attracting new faces to Crewe’s shopping core wasn’t always the issue, as some existing ‘customers’ required more attention than others. “A busy town will always encounter problems, especially from shoplifters. So perhaps one of the biggest achievements was launching the SCOOT (Stamp Crime Out Of Town) initiative and being the first Borough in Cheshire to get the Safer Shopping Award. It was a great partnership with Cheshire Constabulary, in particular Sgt Nigel Bailey and PC Robert Greig – without whom it wouldn’t have happened. The British Retail Consortium also helped to deliver the project plan. That was the start of Crewe town centre networking, and I felt that the local businesses really felt part of it. Eventually, we let go of the reins to Ralph Lewis, ex-manager of Woolworths, and Andrew Carter from Carters Jewellers, so businesses certainly felt more supported with networking from those also in the front line.”
“The position was satisfying, too, as you could help people to enjoy the town who might otherwise be excluded. For instance, introducing the Shopmobility scheme to Crewe. Following much lobbing from the Disability Resource Exchange, we acquired some equipment with partnership support and started a temporary operation from a portakabin on the Victoria Car Park next to ASDA. Interestingly, the cabin is still being used some nine years later!”
The new scheme connecting shops via the John Clough Radio Link was particularly useful around Christmas, a stressful but happy time of year for most shoppers. “The lights switch-on was always the highlight of the year. Market Square was packed and we had pantomime characters, Signal Radio, fireworks and a mini fairground. In my last few years we invited Adelaide FM, the local school radio station, to take over the music, and a great young DJ called Chris Gentile became a star. He was superb, and I’ll be amazed if he doesn’t become a household name in a few years. Including local touches has always made a big difference, like having the Star Search winners also performing on the stage.”
A regular visitor to Crewe’s Lyceum Theatre was also happy to perform the switch-on, and caused quite a stir one festive period. “Ken Dodd was hilarious when he came to see us. His shows are great but he’s just as funny in everyday life. There was still plenty of fuss about his tax evasion trial so he was big news when he arrived in Crewe. While he was here, he cheekily kept asking me to get cracking and make him some Diddy Men! He was always complimentary about the Borough and enjoyed his welcome to town. He was, however, late everywhere he went because he spoke to every one of his fans! Despite the excitement we tried to create, each year members of the public and a few traders said there were not enough lights. It’s all about investment, and as Crewe has much more open space than Nantwich it’s hard to make the displays look as effective. You have to balance it against costs and concerns for the environment. So, before I finished, we changed all of the lights to low energy bulbs. We had some great advice from our engineer, Brett Hall, and his team who did a fantastic job for the towns. We also secured some cash for new Christmas trees with built-in lights, and some delightful reindeer that look beautiful when lit up. Still, it never seems enough, which is why Nantwich Town Council and a few key traders always like to top up those supplied by the Council.”
Addressing lighting issues was a breeze compared to the controversy that surrounded one of the most significant changes to the town centre in many years. “Moving the Britannia War Memorial split the community right down the middle. The town centre staff took plenty of the abuse on a daily basis, often because people didn’t have the right information. There was, however, a noticeable difference in attitude between the public and the traders. The business community understood the need to move the memorial, as it was likely to improve the commercial appeal of Market Square. We also worked very closely with the veterans who established a group to assist us, something I don’t think the public realised. At the time, Mark Potts and Tony Marks, local historians, provided much of the information for the inscriptions, and they would not have been completed as efficiently without their research and help. The move caused a lot of anguish, but I believe that it was the best solution. Thankfully, the majority now feel that Municipal Square is a credit to the town. We also had staff trained to perform ongoing maintenance on the statue, so she should stay in great condition.”
Alongside the memorial switch a new shopping complex was planned. It offered Elaine and the town centre team a fantastic opportunity to put the Crewe shopping experience alongside Chester and Hanley. “It’s sounded great to start with, but the Modus scheme wasn’t destined to happen, especially when the country entered into recession. Crewe needs a major anchor store to attract people in and the other traders need that kind of pull to succeed. It’s been a tough time for them, but I’m told there are some revised development plans on the table and I look forward to seeing what might evolve. It would have been exciting to have been part of these new plans.”
Delayed developments aside, the bridges built with Crewe and Nantwich traders left Elaine with a real sense of achievement. “Having walked through some doors feeling the need to put a tin hat on, as a Council representative, it became a very close-knit group of people. This happened because of our joint efforts, the involvement and help from many key traders and the support of the local community; it’s all to do with teamwork. I developed some great friendships and I managed to introduce many new initiatives that I hope have helped them. I’m still in touch with many of the businesses and groups now and am honoured to call many of them my friends.”
Elaine’s story first appeared in printed format back in 2009. The CAT did get its licence, and there will be a follow-up to the Crewe And Its People book later this year.
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