‘We couldn’t stay open an­other day’

Grape Es­cape closes sud­denly ++ The Gig House shuts Sun­day ++ Rose Street road­works Mon­day ++

The Wokingham Paper - - FRONT PAGE - By PHIL CREIGHTON news@wok­ing­ham­pa­per.co.uk

TWO Wok­ing­ham bars are clos­ing this week, with one blam­ing the re­gen­er­a­tion for their de­ci­sion to shut up shop.

On Tues­day, The Grape Es­cape in Den­mark Street closed down, say­ing that the dra­matic de­cline in town cen­tre foot­fall since the works started last Septem­ber meant that “we just couldn’t stay open an­other day”.

This Sun­day, Wether­spoon is to close The Gig House in Erft­stadt Court. The pop­u­lar pub will be re­placed in due course with an­other op­er­a­tor, but it is not yet known who it will be.

And next week, road­works mean that Rose Street will face two weeks of dis­rup­tion with tem­po­rary traf­fic lights in place to en­able new gas pipes to be in­stalled into the Peach Place devel­op­ment.

If that wasn’t enough, the coun­cil has said hasn’t made any changes to its rate re­duc­tion scheme to help re­tail­ers.

WOK­ING­HAM’S re­gen­er­a­tion woes are con­tin­u­ing with the de­par­ture of a pop­u­lar town cen­tre wine bar.

On Tues­day, The Grape Es­cape closed its doors for the final time, say­ing that the dra­matic de­cline in foot­fall meant “we just couldn’t stay open an­other day”.

The store, which paired cheeses with wines, placed a state­ment on its Facebook page let­ting peo­ple know about the sud­den closure.

“It is with a very heavy heart I send this post as of to­day The Grape Es­cape has closed for good.

“With the mas­sive de­cline of foot­fall to Wok­ing­ham we just couldn’t stay open an­other day.

“Thank you to all our fan­tas­tic lovely cus­tomers we will miss you we have loved serv­ing you all.

“Sorry if you have booked a ta­ble with us.”

The re­tailer’s demise met with an out­pour­ing of grief and frus­tra­tion on our Facebook page with res­i­dents ac­cus­ing the coun­cil of de­stroy­ing the town and push­ing out in­de­pen­dents.

And on Sun­day The Gig House will close, bring­ing to end Wether­spoon’s reign in the town cen­tre.

The bar, in Erft­stadt Court, was pop­u­lar for its value-for­money meal deals, cheap cof­fee and real ales.

Wether­spoon had orig­i­nally planned to move out in Septem­ber this year, but the date has been brought for­ward.

The Wok­ing­ham Pa­per un­der­stands that a new op­er­a­tor for the venue has been found, but it is not yet known who it is, with ru­mours cir­cu­lat­ing that it could be a pizza par­lour. In Read­ing, when Wether­spoon closed The Monk’s Re­treat pub, it was taken on by Stonegate.

These are the lat­est stores to close in the town cen­tre. In re­cent months, shoe shop Cara, clothes re­tailer Marks & Spencer and sev­eral small con­ve­nience stores have all put up their shut­ters for good. Fame dancewear has also gone, re­placed with a nail bar.

Emm­brook Lib­eral Demo­crat coun­cil­lor Imo­gen Shep­herdDuBey said that the news was “ap­palling”.

“Wok­ing­ham needs small in­de­pen­dent traders, such as the Grape Es­cape to give Wok­ing­ham its unique char­ac­ter,” she said. “We do not need a clone town full of chain stores, but if we don't do enough to sup­port the ex­ist­ing smaller busi­nesses, that is what will end up with.”

She also called on the coun­cil to grant hard­ship re­lief from busi­ness rates for af­fected busi­nesses and to pro­mote it.

“I urge the rul­ing group to listen to the facts and act, rather than pre­sum­ing that they know better,” she added.

New Labour coun­cil­lor for Nor­reys, Cllr Rachel Burgess, was also crit­i­cal of the coun­cil, say­ing that the coun­cil’s lead mem­ber for re­gen­er­a­tion, Cllr Philip Mirfin, had not ar­ranged a meet­ing with her over the is­sue, de­spite promis­ing to do so at the full coun­cil meet­ing on May 24.

“The loss of the Grape Es­cape is an­other big blow to the town and is a di­rect re­sult of the town cen­tre re­gen­er­a­tion works, the lat­est in a line of re­tail clo­sures in Wok­ing­ham.

“It’s clear the Coun­cil should be do­ing much more to en­cour­age peo­ple to shop lo­cally.

“Wok­ing­ham busi­nesses need sup­port at this cru­cial time for our town cen­tre.”

Cllr Burgess also called on the coun­cil to in­tro­duce free park­ing and free shut­tle buses from lo­cal ar­eas to the town cen­tre in a bid to in­crease foot­fall.

She said: “Some busi­nesses have seen their tak­ings plum­met as peo­ple go to Brack­nell or Read­ing in­stead to avoid the chaos of the town cen­tre – have the Coun­cil and John Red­wood lob­bied Trea­sury for re­duced busi­ness rates to sup­port lo­cal re­tail­ers dur­ing the pe­riod of the works?

“I re­quested Cllr Mirfin meet with me and lo­cal res­i­dents to dis­cuss the town cen­tre re­gen­er­a­tion – I still have not heard from him.”

But Cllr Mirfin said that the closure of The Grape Es­cape might not be linked to the re­gen­er­a­tion works.

“It’s al­ways sad to see a busi­ness close,” he said. “It’s a pity they are blam­ing the re­gen­er­a­tion for some­thing that might not be caused by the re­gen­er­a­tion.

“Nearby cafe Brown Bag is do­ing very well, the area where Tesco was has been very busy at times.”

He also said that The Grape Es­cape was part of the Busi­ness As­so­ci­a­tion and had the op­por­tu­nity to take part in mar­ket­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, but didn’t do so to the fullest.

He added: “The date I’ve been given for com­ple­tion of Mar­ket Place is July 28 and I ex­pect to hold them [Bal­four Beatty] to that. Peach Place will open at the end of Novem­ber.”

And to add to the re­tail­ers’ woes, the coun­cil has de­nied of­fer­ing a rate re­duc­tion scheme to re­tail­ers.

Last month, some busi­nesses in the town cen­tre said that Wok­ing­ham Bor­ough Coun­cil had told them they agreed to re­duce the busi­ness rates, but in a state­ment, the coun­cil said that the ini­tial scheme hasn’t changed, say­ing that busi­nesses needed to ap­ply with proof that tak­ings had been down to be con­sid­ered.

Cllr Ju­lian McGhee-Sum­ner, ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber for fi­nance for Wok­ing­ham Bor­ough Coun­cil, said: “A rate re­duc­tion hasn’t been agreed for all busi­nesses in the Town Cen­tre.

“We have a dis­cre­tionary rate re­lief scheme that el­i­gi­ble busi­nesses can ap­ply for in­di­vid­u­ally as long as they can pro­vide fi­nan­cial ev­i­dence.

“Some busi­nesses have al­ready ap­plied and been suc­cess­ful.”

Let­ters page 18

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