Redevelopment of bus station and positive welcome to Exeter is top priority
THE redevelopment of Exeter's bus and coach station has been described by the city council as its "number one priority".
But its strategy document for the future growth of the city centre makes it clear that it is not an isolated ambition.
The key theme in the report is to provide the best possible first impression of the city for visitors, however they arrive.
Apart from the £200m transformation of the bus station, already in the pipeline are improvements to the forecourts of both Central Station and Exeter St David's.
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Giving visitors a positive welcome could be reinforced by utilising taxi drivers, bus drivers and hoteliers as city champions, giving them training and targeted information so they have a good knowledge of the history, attractions and facilities available in the city centre.
Making life easier for shoppers is also high on the agenda, with the introduction of more customer-convenient trading hours.
Until the arrival of John Lewis, most shops in Exeter closed at 5.30pm or 6pm. John Lewis stays open longer and some shops, particularly those in Princesshay, decided to follow suit.
The city council saw this as an opportunity to improve the link between the daytime and evening economies, and wants to have people stay in the city centre longer into the evenings.
Wayne Pearce, Princesshay centre director, said: "It is still relatively early days for our extended opening hours, but we are seeing an increasing number of visitors to the centre, particularly on Thursdays."
A John Lewis spokeswoman said: "Since we opened in October, the shop has continued to be extremely popular with residents, and we enjoyed a strong Christmas trading period.
"The opening hours for each of our shops are designed to create the most convenient shopping experience for our customers, enabling them to shop at their leisure, and we are happy with how they have been received by customers in Exeter."
John Harvey, the city centre manager, said he wanted to see more shops open later.
He said: "I think there's more we can do.
"I am frustrated that we haven't had the take-up we should have with shops staying open longer. It is a huge opportunity that we are not capitalising on yet.
"We want to cement our position as being the premier destination west of Bristol.
"I am sure we have got that place, but our competitors want to take that crown away from us, so it is important we maintain our momentum.
"Generally, the indications are that the city centre is doing pretty well, but that is not really good enough and we could do better.
"The fragility of the recovery is as much a challenge for us as anywhere else and there are no grounds for complacency."
The authority is examining how to minimise the impact of traffic in the West Quarter, looking in particular at Fore Street and the Quayside.
The aim is to make the area a hub for independent businesses and cafe culture by providing easier access.
Street markets are also to be more closely looked at.
There is a planned review of Sidwell Street market with a view to enhancing it, and the idea for year-round specialist markets, building on the success of the first Christmas market on Cathedral Green in November/December, has also been put forward.
Richard Ball, the city's assistant director for economy, said: "We do not want to do anything to threaten the markets we have. "Rather, we would be looking to complement them.
"It could be markets with a speciality theme, but the emphasis would be on quality while taking account of everybody's pocket.
"It would be good for Exeter to have a reputation for quality markets.
"Pockets of cultural activity such as street theatre would also draw people into different parts of the city centre.
"This could also be used to bring in visitors to the city not just in the summer months. "This is the sort of initiative which could be achieved through having a Business Improvement District."
The Exeter Board has already had discussions about creating a small cultural area at the front of Central Library, and this could spread to other areas of the city.
To further extend the cultural quarter centred around the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Central Library, which is currently undergoing a £4.2m refit, the discussion paper suggests that greater use could be made of Northernhay Gardens.
For example, £50,000 would see the renovation of the Northernhay bandstand, allowing it to be used regularly in the summer for concerts.
Once past the city's gateways, visitors should see Exeter at its best, and one idea is for a Scores on the Floors scheme.
The strategy also proposes to give customers more confidence in cafes and restaurants, by building on the success of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme under which establishments post their ratings from one to five on their doors.
A new scheme would rate the individual tidiness of businesses, noting how they kept on top of customer litter, flyposting and graffiti.
Councillor Rosie Denham, for economy and tourism, stressed that the strategy was about the city council working in partnership with businesses, individuals and other agencies, including the county council.
She said: "We are hoping the discussion paper kick-starts the debate.
"We are prepared to look at anything, but it does have to be achievable.
"Funding for maintenance and investment in the city centre is likely to be much more restricted than in the past.
"There is a real risk of complacency, and without a concerted effort the success to date will be reversed to the detriment of those who depend on the city centre for employment, the profitability of their business, or for their enjoyment and quality of life.
"This is a very important document which provides an opportunity for an important debate on what sort of future we collectively want for the city centre and what will be the best way to be able to work with partners on maintaining the process of city centre change, renewal and investment which together we've been so successful in delivering over the last decade.
"Exeter has coped with the recession relatively more successfully than other centres as a direct result of careful and joined-up long-term planning and delivery of worthwhile projects, and looking after the fabric of the city based on effective partnership working.
"It is so important we continue that approach and don't become complacent.
"I hope the draft strategy stimulates a robust debate and then clear commitment from a range of partners in the business and wider communities to working together for the continued and future success of the city."