Pop Up Penzance is still less that a year old and yet it seems that we have managed to make our presence felt in town. Indeed it feels as if we are a part of a Penzance zeitgeist, a sudden confluence of positive energies all driving to improve the place we live, possibly focussed by the arrival of the Sainsbury’s hypermarket, with its challenges and potential source of funding for the town centre, but also no doubt in response to the struggles facing town centres across the country, highlighted by Mary Portas, Bill Grimsey and many others.
An “aha” moment across a Fifty Degrees choir rehearsal in a Humphrey Davy School classroom, a couple of visits (Falmouth & Liskeard), a few pints and a lot of Googling later, Maria McEwen and I, both inveterate community organisers, decided to just get on and do it. We fit an emerging demographic of women over 50 setting up their own businesses, and also a growing body of social entrepreneurs here in Cornwall. We have set up Pop Up Penzance Community Interest Company with a key aim of community benefit, but recognising that in this economic climate, if we can’t establish a financially viable business model we have no future.
We quickly crystallised our mission “to revitalise the town centre of Penzance through temporary activities in empty and underused spaces”, and our aim is to do so with a mix of art, community, retail, education and more. We decided initially to focus on Market Jew Street, not only because it is so prominent amongst locals and visitors, but also because it appeared to us that it was struggling more that other streets in Penzance. We have done our own calculation of the vacancy rate on Market Jew Street and in October 2013, it was 12.5% which is higher than the Cornwall average. It is dogged by very high rents and rates, and of course many of the empty shops are large and unsuitable for local independent traders.
A very busy period from February to July this year was dedicated to finding out how to run pop-ups, and setting in place all the mechanisms that would make it possible for us to do it. A large part of that was establishing the legalities of our responsibility for buildings and premises, and instances where we would share that responsibility with other “pop-uppers”. We also had a lot of learning to do about business rates, for example that landlords pay full business rates on empty properties, except in the case of listed buildings which are exempt. Registered charities are exempt from 80% of business rates and can gain a further 20% as long as they use the property for charitable purposes, hence the prevalence of charity shops on our high streets. A community interest company such as Pop Up Penzance is liable for full business rates, but can apply for discretionary rate relief, and must do so each and every time it rents a property. To illustrate the financial challenges that businesses on Market Jew Street in Penzance face, we’ll share the fact that business rates alone, for the first premises we took on, the former Stead and Simpsons, cost £278 per week.
We hope that most local people will have seen our first “Pop Up” in the summer. Each week, several people or small businesses shared the large space that is the former Stead and Simpson, offering a wide range of products, services and activities, and the provision changed, usually week to week. For most of our pop-uppers, it was a chance to test their products in a high street location, promote their business and make some cash. Pop Up Fun (part of that first pop-up programme) was a week of art, crafts and ping pong for locals and visitors.
We have just launched our fourth programme of pop-ups in the newly acquired former Peasgoods. After a week of Designers and Makers, the three-story building will be transformed into Grandfather Frost’s Christmas Depot, a magical winter wonderland for children and families, open in the two weeks before Christmas. Created by Mercurial Wrestler, a locally-based theatre company, and funded in large part by the kind donations from individuals and businesses, but also with some funding from Cornwall Council and FEAST, this gorgeous theatrical event will, we hope, give great delight to the children and families who visit the Depot, but also, encourage people to come to Penzance and enjoy the facilities (cafes, shops etc) that we have here. (More info and booking at www.mercurialwrestler.com)
Our overall aim is to re-invigorate the town centre with temporary activities in empty and under-used spaces, but we have several more aims. We want to enable start-up businesses to try out their ideas with low or little risk. Since July, two of our pop-uppers have set up long-term businesses, having tried out their proposition in short “pop-ups”. We want to try out community activity and our Pop Up Fun, Mini Film Festival and Christmas Depot are examples of this. We want to facilitate others to avail of the opportunities offered on the high street, and in our various pop-ups, approximately 40 small or micro ventures have taken up this opportunity. We want to encourage new thinking about how to trade in the town centre, so we were delighted recently to hear a group or artists, designers and makers exploring the possibility of co-operative trading. We want to work with others constructively for the benefit of our town, and we have enjoyed engaging in the conversation that has been the Postcards to Penzance initiative run by The Exchange Gallery. We want the empty shops to be occupied, preferably by locally-based independent business people, and we hope that our pop-ups may stimulate interest in premises in the town centre. We want to do something positive for our town, and we have an ever-growing list of projects we would like to develop in the future.
You know you’re doing something right when things flow smoothly and help comes at exactly the right time. A look at our website “Thank You” page indicates how much support has been made available to us in bringing Pop Up Penzance to life. We see ourselves largely as “facilitators”, enabling people to bring new activities and benefits to Penzance town centre. Anyone interested? Do get in touch!
Rachel Martin and Maria McEwen
Facebook – Pop Up Penzance
Twitter - @popuppenzance