Free Press round table: 'Doncaster on the up, but town centre needs action'
Doncaster is on the up according to official figures from Doncaster Council.
A recent report stated £90.5 million was invested in the borough in 2016-17, with 894 full time jobs created, 1,175 apprenticeships since 2013, and 1057 new homes built in the borough.
Now, in the first of new series of regular round table features, we gathered a group of some of Doncaster's most influential people to discuss how Doncaster is improving and what could be done to make it event better.
The round table panel was made up of Charlotte Dimond, director, sidekick PR; Craig Dowie, managing director, the Crown Hotel, Bawtry; Joghn Huddleston, communications and corporate affairs manager at Doncaster Sheffield Airport; Bobbie Roberts, chairman of Doncaster Deaf Trust; and Karen Staniforth, assistant general manager, Frenchgate Centre.
What evidence to you see of Doncaster's economy improving at present?
Craig Dowie: "Our mix of business has changed. Last night we had 40 rooms booked by Hitachi . The clientele in Doncaster used to be budget hotel and budget business, looking at low rates. But is is changing. This week we had we had Hitachi on a good room rate wanting dinners and breakfasts.
"It was not what we usually have from smaller clients. It is what you would often find in places like Leeds, Manchester and Harrogate, from blue chip companies, and we have seen a growth in this sort of company coming in.
"This has been in the last five or six months, and that has given us a lot of confidence.
"It's not the leisure market. The corporate traveller wants to have a big bed, a power shower and wifi, and good service, and that's what people like Hitachi want, and then to be able to get away after breakfast at 6am.
"The main issue we have problems with is with taxis. We want a taxi rank in Bawtry, and it has been a struggle."
Karen Staniforth: "We've spent £3 million attracting new brands. We managed to get TK Maxx which has seen an increase in footfall. We've also brought in a 24 hour gym and New Look, Bigger brands are starting to be attracted to us.
"We recently went to look at centres in Manchester and we come away feeling very proud of ourselves, as a really clean centre.
"But we do get frustrated with the high street in Doncaster town centre. The council is trying to deal with it, but the town centre looks a mess.
John Huddlestone: "From the broader level and from the airport level, we've seen a growth in passenger numbers, and we have seen speculative building at the Aerocentre, near the airport, which suggests confidence in the market.
"Flybe is seeing strong demand in flights to Amsterdam, and that is one of the more business friendly routes. Some of that will be city breaks."
Charlotte Taylor: "When people go through the airport they can't believe how easy it is to get through it."
Bobbie Roberts: "There are too many empty shops in the town centre at present. Some look dowdy and there is too much chewing gum around.
"I recently received a cheque for the Deaf Trust from some children at Richmond Hill School. One of them dropped some paper and the rest of them said 'you can't leave that there'. We need all our children to be like that."
Charlotte Dimond: " you go out of town on the new airport link you see the new Amazon building. That shows the improving economy."
Craig Dowie: "So much of it is out of the town centre."
John Huddlestone: "The leisure offer in Doncaster is improving with things like the wildlife park, the planned golf course. It is about getting people to spend more time in the place.
Bobbie Roberts: "Doncaster Culture and Leisure Trust has seen a vast improvement and there have been vast changes improving its facilities in places like Bessacarr, Balby and Adwick. They've invested and continue to do so. And one of the great things for me is the theatre, Cast. It has really taken off, and has had an exceptional programme.
How do you rate Doncaster's prospects for improvement in the next 12 months?
Karen Staniforth: "The council has a big vision for the market and the station area, but I think we need to keep the town centre in a better state. It needs a clean up."
Charlotte Dimond: "Rotherham has empty shops, but they seem to dress them up, and clear them up."
Karen Staniforth: "The council seems to be addressing the homelessness and we've seen a marked improvement in that in the town centre."
Charlotte Dimond: "We have seen events like Right Up Your Street in the town centre, organising events like the DN WeekeND. The St Leger Festival will see activities too."
Craig Dowie: "People come in and see some great things, but we have to get the foundations right. It is a difficult environment in the town centre, so why don't we do things in the suburbs?We have five events books for people at the wildlife park, but they will not be going through the town centre."
Bobbie Roberts: "We need and improved and good town centre, and that will help the borough."
Charlotte Dimond: "I think the great thing is about Doncaster is the partnership working and that will help. It is so good in Doncaster and I've not seen it as good elsewhere."
Craig Dowie: "There is a lot of co-operation between the council and the private sector and other organisations. There are a lot of people who have known each over a long time, and there are good relationships . I think the council have bought into the idea that it's about working together."
What do you think would improve Doncaster as a place to live and work?
Craig Dowie: "I think communications are key. With the new airport link road you can get from Bawtry to Sheffield in 30 minutes. It means you can whizz through Doncaster and get to Leeds or anywhere quickly and that's brilliant."
Karen Staniforth: "No one is tackling the town centre . It seems like we've created this doughnut of brilliance outside and left the town centre.
Charlotte Dimond: "I'm not sure there is a town centre that's been fully addressed. Leeds is just as bad.
Karen Staniforth: "I don't know how you get the pride if you don't get the centre right.
John Huddleston: "It is about open spaces to have events. I think the model is changing. How do you fix it? I can't remember the last time I went to a high street. Retail may have a role but I don't know what the aims are.
Craig Dowie: "The city centre could be a quality eating, drinking and cafe destination. That's what they've done in Sheffield. They have high visibility patrols in the Peace Gardens. You don't hear of any grief because they've addressed it. What ever you can do in Leeds, you can do in Sheffield, They've nailed it.
What is Doncaster's biggest asset when it comes to investment and jobs?
John Huddleston: "I don't think it's just about the bigger assets, but it is also about what is a catalyst to bringing people in. I think the airport is one of the biggest assets.
Karen Staniforth: "I think it's the people. The customers we have are so loyal to Doncaster, they won't go to Meadowhall. They shop in Doncaster, they eat in Doncaster, and I think they are an asset. It is a great thing about Doncaster and I think we should embrace it.
Bobbie Roberts: "I think it is the people."
Craig Dowie: Lakeside retail park, the airport, the new airport link road.
"With having that link road, people can live in Doncaster and work in Sheffield or Leeds. It is about connectivity and affordability of houses near the link road. I think it is changing the images of areas, and if it helps develop places like Harworth and Rossington.
John Huddlestone: "The accessibility attracts people coming from North, South, East and West."
Charlotte Dimond: "There are many people living here who like to commute daily and that's down to the great links here."
Craig Dowie: "That's a massive shouting point for Doncaster - we're an hour and a half from London."
How is your organisation helping drive Doncaster forward?
Karen Staniforth: "We're really proud of being rated in the top 50 shopping centres in the country, and of our Purple Apple award for fashion and interactive marketing.
"We have done flower shows and are committed to serving customers where we know there's an older demographic, and we are trying to bring in some culture.
"But I think it is the community work that we do that we're most proud of, like our flower show."
John Huddleston: "The airport supports about 1,000 jobs in the area and there has been a lot of investment from Peel. We had 1.2 million passengers and could handle many more. In terms of being an economic asset, airports drive investment around them. We are like a magnet for other economic growth.
"We have the potential to expand that many areas do not have, and that could be through and East Coast line station."
Bobbie Roberts: "The Deaf Trust Christmas lights are the best in the area, and are hanging baskets too. We've got relationships with many organisations and groups.
"We employ almost 500 people."
Charlotte Dimond: "About 50 per cent of our clients are in Doncaster, and we see our job as more than just getting messages out. It is also about positive relationships. We've set up a forum for businesses to get together and share best practice at Lakeside. It is about sharing information better as a town and we're striving hard to do that."
Craig Dowie: "We are independent and can have open and honest dialogue, and we have do a lot in our own town centre in Bawtry.
"We've got partnerships with Rovers, Doncaster Culture and Leisure Trust and the racecourse.
"If someone wants to invest, we pull out all the stops to get deals done. We will work hand in hand with people to make sure people who want to invest in the area feel that they're not just a number. . If someone in Doncaster gets a deal we all benefit from the ripples.
"We work with other businesses in Bawtry We recently had a film crew for 35 nights. We helped sort dinner out for them in the town and got them discounts. We encourage them to go out and want them to stay in the town. We link up with other businesses so they can put bills they run up onto their room bills."