Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Belshaw's World - Armidale's CBD problems

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 24 March 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.
Continuing my ramblings on my return to Armidale after a break of several years, I left the University for town just after lunch time on the Friday.

I had an appointment to visit the Express at 3, and decided to spend the intervening time just wandering the main street, following the paths I had known. I didn’t want to park at either of the shopping centres on the eastern and western edges of the CBD, so I drove around the central CBD looking for street parking.

Dear me, what a remarkable number of one hour parking signs Armidale now has! I am sure that there are good reasons for this, but it wasn’t much use from my viewpoint. Finally, I did what I had always done, and drove down to the Hanna’s parking area. I should have done this first, it was almost empty.

As I wandered down through Hanna’s Arcade to Beardy Street, I wondered how all the new parking and street arrangements affected visitor traffic. I actually found them confusing.

Armidale now seems to be at the stage that the city needs a map of the CBD itself for visitor use. I think that this would help visitors’ plan their activities.

I walked up Beardy Street to the Mall and then into the old Richardson’s Arcade. For a period we had our offices upstairs in the Arcade, with my own office overlooking Beardy Street.

The thing that struck me most during my walk was the number of vacant offices and shops. The old Richardson’s Arcade itself felt like a disaster area.

I know that there are particular reasons for this, including the new shopping centres and the move by some firms into new premises. I also know that, with time, population growth and new business starts will start to fill in the gaps.

Still, it was disappointing.

I think that the thing that has surprised me most about the central Mall and the immediately surrounding area lies in its failure to develop as a specialist shopping/eating area. It did start to go that way, then seemed to stop.

I might write on this one in more detail in another column. For the moment, I am just recording impressions.

While in the Mall, I mounted my usual bookshop raid. I do this on each trip, looking for new books connected in some way with New England.

This is another thing I have noticed over the last twenty years. Twenty years ago, the then Pidgeon’s as well as the main book stores all had small Armidale or New England collections. These have declined with time, and have now vanished. I was able to buy a few, but only because I already knew the titles.

Chatting in Reader’s Companion, I was told that this was due to books going out of print.

I am sure that this is part of the story, but it is more than that. I think that there has been a loss of focus. You see, I know from the Express and other sources that a range of new books have in fact been published. I would like to buy them!

Look, I accept that I have specialist interests. However, I am also sure from my own experience that visitors in particular are interested in and will buy local titles.

One book that I was able to get my hands on was John Ryan’s Tales from New England.

The book reviews the work of a number of writers with New England connections. I found the first chapter slow going, then became absorbed. As a result, I finished the entire book in one run over the Friday and Saturday.

I especially enjoyed the section on Robert Barnard.

The publication of Death of An Old Goat in 1974 launched Barnard's international crime writing career. The plot deals with the attempts by a young English lecturer, Bob Bascomb, to assist police in solving the apparently motiveless murder of a recently arrived visitor to the Department of English at the University of Drummondale.

The book is a sometimes very funny and satirical (if somewhat cruel picture) of life in Armidale and at the university in the 1960s. It is especially funny in places to those who know Armidale, because of the tendency to play spot the person!

It seems that I will need a third column to finish the story of my return to Armidale.

On a final note, did you know that two of the Australian finalists for this year’s Romance Writers of America's RITA Awards for published work are from the Armidale district?

My congratulations to Kelly Hunter and Bronwyn Parry.


info said...

Nice observations Jim,
We are 18 months in Armidale and our first impressions of the CBD were similiar. Very disjoint and some disappointing/empty/dilapidated shops.
We thought you could put all the shoppings centres into one and still only have a reasonably sized one.
The East and West shopping centres have helped the mall survive I think. You pick up some things from the major centres and then wander up to the mall shops.
I think landlords have something to answer for. At a time of high vacancy rates they should be looking after their tenants.
It would be ideal to have precincts - eating, coffee, boutique shops, bookstores. It is just such a hodgepodge. Florista recently moved to her residential address and many others are contemplating moves based mainly on rent.
Having said that, I love the mall, being able to walk down it with autumn leaves coming out and people enjoying the sun at the cafes.
But much can be done to improve it, and shopps have to be filled.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi David. Good to see that you are following me on Twitter!

I, too, love the mall. And I think the fact that we do not have a huge, single, shopping centre is central to the mall's survival.

In one sense, it doesn't matter how high the rents are if the businesses have the turnover to support this.

Did you know that there used to be three licensed restrnts in that one block outside ordinary pub dining? Two were associated with pubs, one not.

There also used to be four book shops; maybe five. I am trying to remember - I may be double counting one.

The landlords do need to support development, but we need a unifying strategy.