From installing WiFi and luggage lockers to upgrading parking ticket machines, the cash is being used for a variety of projects that are helping the district’s town centres keep pace with the changes.
As internet shopping and out of town retail parks replace traditional town centres, even the biggest names in retail have abandoned the high street.
In response, two Scottish Government funds – that aim to help centres diversify, increase footfall, and support local employment – came together to offer £2.7 million to the district.
The Covid pandemic set back much of the work – but Falkirk Council says it is now back on track to complete the larger transformational projects this financial year.
Jacquie McArthur, economic development officer with Falkirk Council, said the first thing the funds helped to do was review the parking situation in the town centre, looking at everything from signage to cost.
A consultant firm did a full audit of the car parking, with recommendations including introducing a 50p for half an hour parking.
“That recognises how shopping habits have changed,” said Jacquie. “People are spending less time and they are using a lot of Click and Collect, so the 50p for half an hour makes that easier.”
The car park ticket machines have also been modernised, which makes life easier for customers who don’t always have change these days.
A further £375,000 has been set aside to help the town centre repurpose itself away from retail – for example, converting upper floor areas that would once have been used for storage by busy shops, but are now lying empty, into housing.
“The retail heyday is over so we need to think smarter about what we do in the town centre,” said Jacquie.
The council is working alongside conservation architects to help property owners find the best use for their property.
A large chunk of cash – over £600,000 – will be used to improve the appearance of the area around Lint Riggs and Newmarket Street, close to Falkirk High Street.
“We’re recognising that this is the main artery into the town now – the bus station is gone, so this is the main transport hub and a lot of people come through the Asda car park, so it’s quite a significant area in the town,” said Jacquie.
But it has also had problems with anti-social behaviour and the large numbers of buses that now use it – effectively replacing the bus station which closed in 2018 – has led to concern about safety for pedestrians.
The work will tie together three projects to minimise disturbance to businesses and their customers. As well as the public realm work, First Bus will be extending the bus stops and the council’s roads maintenance team will be upgrading the roads. Construction is expected to be complete early in 2023.
Another town centre initiative in Falkirk is the introduction of luggage lockers in the Melville Street car park. They were installed in response to tourists saying they wanted to have somewhere to leave luggage while exploring Falkirk town centre – but after the pandemic another use became apparent.
Now, people who want to buy something from a shop but can’t get in during the day can ask for it to be left in the parcel locker, which is accessible by using a QR code.
“It’s a good initiative for the businesses, it’s working really well and is helping businesses to trade in a different way,” said Jacquie.
One of the first projects was to introduce public WiFi to Falkirk, Bo’ness and Grangemouth – Denny already had it – recognising that this now influences where people and families choose to spend their time.
Now, evidence suggests that customers spent more money when the free WiFi became available – and it is also a good way to promote information to attract and keep visitors in the area.
It also helps businesses engage with customers – something that became even more paramount during the pandemic.
There is more technology being used to decide where money will be best spent. Installing footfall counters has provided valuable information about busiest areas, days and times.
“It’s a great way for us to see footfall patterns and that what we are doing is working,” said Jacquie. “For example, we can see at a glance if events by Falkirk Delivers have brought people into the town.”
The technology, using mobile phone data, is very accurate and counts new visitors to the town as well as repeat customers and they will soon be installed in all of the town centres.
Other improvements on the cards are large-scale projectors for Falkirk and Denny that can be used on the gable end of buildings to show art work or promote local events – much easier to maintain than murals.
In Grangemouth, the cash is being used in a plan to tackle community concerns around high vacancy rates by relocating businesses more centrally and demolishing a largely vacant building.
With just one business left to be relocated, the demolition of the Kerse Road block will then get underway creating a site for future development – hopefully by the end of the year.
In Bo’ness, some of the money is making improvements to the town’s historic and much-loved library – installing a lift to allow the upper floor to be used more. The work has been delayed by Covid but is expected to be complete by February 2023.
Other work in Bo’ness includes a shop front repair and grant scheme that will help owners protect and improve their buildings and a small building repair project to refurbish some of the town’s heritage properties.
The roll out of the Ebike scheme in Denny and Bo’ness is proving to be very successful.Jacquie and her colleagues are now trying to encourage some of the thousands of visitors pouring into Blackness – and causing huge parking problems – to go to Bo’ness first and then take an e-bike along the Foreshore to the famous castle.