‘I can only hope we can carry on where we left off’: Castle Quarter’s boss on the coronavirus close-down
He is the man who never stopped believing in his shopping centre ... so how does it feel to be the one to shut it down? CAROLINE CULOT spoke to Robert Bradley, centre manager at Norwich’s Castle Quarter.
It was only two months ago Robert Bradley was reaping the rewards of a year-long effort to turn around the fortunes of a shopping centre that had been sadly dwindling.
And, against all odds, he did it.
In January Mr Bradley was reporting numbers of visitors up by 10% – starkly contrasting the national, bleak picture for shopping centres with the number of visitors down across other sites by as much as 0.8pc.
He had secured two big new leisure operators opening for Easter and things were really looking up.
But, then coronavirus struck. Gradually, even before the government lockdown, some stores closed because people were staying away and finally Mr Bradley had to shut down the whole centre apart from two stores.
What had seen 80 tenants operating went down to just two selling essential items – Poundland and Boots which still remain open.
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He himself now goes into the centre office once a week. He is the only worker just checking that the managers of those shops have everything they need.
“It is quite sad to go from seeing the mall become busier to now, there’s just five people queuing for Boots.
“But I am a naturally positive person, so year on year, next March will be the best ever, I’m doing something wrong if I’m not up year on year then.”
He said it was a smooth transition from being open to closed, monitoring the news daily and checking with store managers before the final lockdown from the government.
“I’d been following the news so I was expecting it. I’ve had training in major incidents and over the last few weeks we had asked managers how they would cope if they were asked to close, every day I wait for the 5pm government speeches to see what we have to do today.
“I’m still very positive and we’ve still been getting enquiries from firms wanting to come into units going forward.
“Last week I had a conference call with the centre owners and I was talking about how everything was so positive in February, above the national average, even the first week of March was brilliant but obviously the rest of March isn’t going to be as good.
“We are still talking about the good October and December we had.
“We have cut our costs, we are not spending as much money. For instance we now have two cleaners rather than eight because only a very small area of the mall on level two is open. The car parks are all closed.”
Mr Bradley and his team defied many people when he turned around the fortunes of the centre.
In 2017-2018 many retailers pulled out and many people thought the centre was finished. Last year was the turning point, with a change of name from Castle Mall to Castle Quarter, reflecting the ‘shop, dine, watch and play’ theme as well as many new tenants.
After the opening of PureGym and the amusement arcade came new announcements last month of big leisure operators such as game complexes like Boom: Battle Bar and XIST, both creating many new jobs.
This coupled with other units filled in a different way with social enterprises and some for free games including ping pong and table football as well as others for relaxation and reading in an honesty library.
The result? Castle Quarter became a vibrant hub again and with more visitors, came more retailers. Units were filled with new life from the likes of Moya Bubble Tea, to new owners taking over the Tea Junction, a new Delightful Desserts cafe and even a huge charity shop space taken over by the YMCA.
A common sight if you walked through the centre was Mr Bradley himself strolling through the levels, talking to staff and customers.
“I can only hope we can carry on where we left off. I think people will come back, People will love to do the things again they took for granted, like parking in Castle Quarter and standing in the atrium – it’s a privilege now a lot of people do not have.
“To go for a walk around the market and get a bag of chips, how good is that going to feel? To shake people’s hands again, and the day to day interaction, that’s what I myself am missing most.”
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