THE FIRST business improvement district – or BID – in the world was set up in a small suburb of Toronto, in Canada, in 1970.
The concept proved so popular that just a few years later it moved to the United States where it has continued to grow. Astonishingly, there are now 67 BIDs in New York city alone!
It took until 2005 before the first UK BID was established (in Kingston-on-Thames) and there are now more than 320 here with, by all accounts, another 44 being planned so far this year.
Bradford, of course, is one of them and it has now arrived at the crucial moment when 630 businesses and other organisations in the designated city centre area are taking part in a secret postal ballot to decide whether it will go ahead.
I’m happy to say that the Telegraph & Argus, through its parent company Newsquest, has already voted with a resounding Yes!
Why? Well, let me explain…
Town and city centres across the country are under increasing pressure from the economy, uncertainty over what Brexit will bring and huge changes in shopping habits – fuelled by the growth in online retail activity – over the last 10 years or so.
But they’re not dead yet! City centres define how a place is perceived by residents and visitors alike but their fortunes have always waxed and waned.
We all know that Bradford was once a bigger city than Leeds; that it had one of the highest levels of retail frontage outside London and its customers owned more Rolls Royces than any city outside the capital (or so the story goes…)
That prosperity was built on the back of innovation, industry and trading wealth which has long since disappeared and the subsequent decline in the city’s fortunes – accompanied by the rise in those of Leeds – has had a significant impact on how Bradford’s residents feel about the place.
But confidence builds confidence, as places like Leeds and Manchester clearly demonstrate.
The Bradford city centre of today may not be what it once was but it is a sight better than before the huge investment in The Broadway shopping centre and City Park.
There is a great deal more to come in the years ahead, with exciting plans to revamp our rail stations and even create a through-route with massively enhanced transport links through Northern Powerhouse Rail.
Then there’s the refurbishment of St George’s Hall, one of the best Victorian concert halls in the UK, the redevelopment of the old Odeon into a major live music venue, the planned relocation of the city’s markets, new money to protect the fine buildings in the Top of the Town area and more new shops and restaurants heading our way, including TJ Hughes and Pizza Express.
Confidence is starting to build but not everyone can see it: Bradford has rolled with the punches for a very long time so when things start to change for the better it can be difficult for some people to get their heads around it.
At the same time as it is pushing Bradford on, though, the Council is faced with more huge budget cuts and a wholesale restructuring of its services.
So where will the money come from to develop, promote and drive the city centre forward if the Council hasn’t got the cash to do it?
The obvious answer is the private sector but, thus far, those who make a living from and in the city centre have not really engaged with it in any joined-up way.
What BIDs have been proved to do across the country (and beyond) is to bring together those with a vested interest in the city centre to work together to improve the prospects for all.
Bradford’s BID expects to raise £500,000 a year over its first five-year term to carry out a wide range of improvements, such as the kind of deep cleaning the Council no longer has the money for, providing better lighting and clearer thoroughfares, tackling anti-social behaviour and over-turning the (false) perception that the city centre is somehow unsafe.
Its plans to bring more people in through supporting more events and entertainment to animate our streets and to market and promote the city and sell the benefits of living, working and playing here, which are all key elements of building confidence among residents and visitors alike.
The very existence of the BID will help to engage independent shops and national chains, offices, professional service providers, hostelries, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues alike in working together for the common good. The BID will be the gel that binds them all together and gives them a say in how it all happens.
That, alone, is worth the levy that every business will have to pay.
Town and city centres are changing and evolving but they will always be the lifeblood of every district. They must become not just shopping centres but places where citizens interact for leisure and pleasure as well as work and they need to become places where more people live because of what’s on offer.
Without a BID to drive it and unite all those who can make it happen, where will Bradford be?