The fate of the market has been at the centre of the debate on how the proposals for developing Churchgate and the surrounding area, but neither developer had recent discussions with the market traders before presenting their impressions of how they could develop the area now occupied by the market. The market traders have concerns about plans which would require demountable (temporary) stalls and move them without exploring the pros and cons.
For the past 4 years the traders have been managed by Hitchin Market Limited, with a full time manager and a board on which they have representatives. They say that having that the new management has enabled them to make improvements, to upgrade the area and remove eyesores. They want to do more but are blighted by the short term leases – NHDC are keeping the options open for the present site to be developed. This prevents them getting grants to aid the renovations and the uncertainty over the future of the site also deters new traders coming. They have invested money and improved the area, but are aware of concerns that it is still unsightly and should be made safer at night – things that will improve anyway, but will be helped a lot when their future is clear.
The following is the summary of the market traders’ issues which was accompanied the letter sent to Councillors about the Churchgate proposals from Hitchin Forum, The Hitchin Society and Hitchin Historical Society:-
1. Hitchin is a historic market town; for 1000 years the market has been inextricably tied up with the town’s identity in terms of its character, attractiveness and commercial vitality.
2. It is well documented that towns with independent traders are the most successful; they attract visitors and are more resilient in difficult times. Hitchin has independents, both in its shops and its market (200 independent stalls) which may go some way to explaining why Hitchin is surviving the economic downturn better than its neighbours.
3. Markets provide social value as well as economic value. There is a community amongst the traders but also with their customers who feel safe and comfortable in a friendly environment.
4. Markets bridge financial / age boundaries and are especially valued by lower income families and pensioners.
5. Markets provide specialist knowledge and traders are notably helpful to customers, something many find lacking in chain stores and supermarkets.
6. Markets are a way for people to start a small business, testing out ideas without the overwhelming financial commitment of setting up in a shop. They also provide a way for people to supplement their income by trading at weekends, or for a part time working spouse to help out with the family’s finance.
7. Hitchin Market is a community project – not for profit – and has been, so far, a successful project.
8. Specialist traders attract customers from further afield; Hitchin market gets customers from London.
9. Visitors to the market will use and thus assist other town businesses.
10. Hitchin Market is the largest “department store” in the area.
11. Hitchin Markets Limited has invested thousands of pounds in the market in the last four years, entirely from site profits. As with other independent businesses, money spent in Hitchin Market benefits the local economy far more than does cash spent in national chain stores.
12. Markets may increasingly provide an alternative form of retailing for fringe shops struggling in declining (and costly) high street units.