Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Half empty or half full?

This afternoon's Vision Forum meeting was held in Cardiff University's Senate building oak panelled Council Chamber, a room breathing seriousness of purpose, embedded in the history of learning in Wales, as well as the City.

As I entered this prestigious building I tried to recall if I had ever entered these hallowed portals before, either during my two year sojourn at St Michael's Llandaff when I attended some University lectures, or at any other time. It was all unfamiliar to me. I had to ask my way at the porter's lodge.

It was a good setting for this periodic meeting of executive leaders in public service bodies and governmental agencies, which strives to keep in view all the major developments and projects that will have consequences for the way our city works, affecting everyone who has to give an organisational lead. My role is simply to observe and feed back relevant information to Archbishop Barry.

The key input of this meeting was a report from Paul Orders, head of economic policy, on how the current recession is affecting various aspects of life in the City, seen from the perspective of its administration. Someone expressed concern about the detrimental effect on the city economy of both retail redevelopment and the lengthy process of pedestrianising St Mary Street. This seemed to me to be based more on what the local newspapers have said, as opposed to real data. But lacking the facts, there was nothing I could say until Paul mentioned the upturn in visitor numbers to Cardiff in the first quarter of 2009.

From City Centre Retail Partnership data, month after month, the economic downturn, whilst worrying, has been far less worrying than it might have been. Numbers of visitors have dipped, as might be expected during a recession, but by no means as severely as feared. Some feisty campaign advertising has kept people curious about what's going on in Cardiff City Centre. Many shoppers as well as visitors have braved ever-changing conditions to come in and shop, rather than stay at home or go elsewhere. Admittedly facts are fragile, but certainly not helped by Media pessimism.

Following on from this, I chaired another meeting of the Countdown 2009 Faith Focus Group in Southgate House. It was, for the most part, a matter of keeping up to speed with steps in the completion of the redevelopment. There are dates now. John Lewis Store is due to open in the last week of of September and the re-development shopping centre, branded no longer as SD2 but as St Davids' Centre, according to this week's press releases, due to open in the last week of October.

Apparently, all the building and fitting-out work is on schedule, and the openings should be delivered as promised. This will, in itself, be a huge feat of consistency, born of disciplined planning and work within one huge perimeter fence. Although so much smaller, getting St Mary Street pedestrianisation right will prove to be a lot more difficult because even more factors of complexity are involved, things nobody even thought of when the idea was first envisaged.

Sadly, few people will thank City engineers for the eventual product of their labours on one street, though many will stand in awe of what Bovis Lend Lease has achieved to bring off this mightily ambitious plan to transform the heart of a city centre.

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