JIM PARKER: Is time running out for change?
WHEN businesses like Paignton Harbour Sports go down the pan you know you are in big trouble. There are bound to be casualties in the current economic climate. Trying to make a living must be a nightmare at the moment.
But you would expect — or at the very least hope — well-established businesses like Harbour Sports to be able to weather the storm as it has, no doubt, done in previous difficult times.
For me, its demise is something of a watershed moment, a huge wake up call to those who run the Bay with a message that we need action and action now.
Harbour Sports was founded in the 1970s by Frank Sobey and Julian Smith together with their wives Lyndy and Sue.
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Harbour Sports Ltd has gone into voluntary liquidation which has meant the end of the road for its stores on Paignton harbour, Exeter and Plymouth.
Frank is a well-known character both in the retail world and out in the wider community.
He says: "It is all horrendous stuff. You get to the stage where your head starts to hurt. It was time to hit the high road. It leaves me and others out of a job, although I still do some lecturing at South Devon College and I do a bit of private consultancy on business."
He reckons the business has sunk amid the 'perfect storm'.
He says: "The financial crisis kicked off in 2003. I was writing about it then on the BBC website. I could see where we were going fiscally.
"The cutting edge on any entrepreneurial downturn is going to be retail. You only have to look at the high street where shop after shop has closed down. Every one is a broken dream.
"Torbay has high unemployment rates. We have a community earning less and less money. You do not get the secondary spend."
The weather — and another miserable holiday season — has also taken its toll.
Frank says: "Trade this year has been catastrophic. When you have to put the central heating on in August you know you have a problem.
"The market place has shifted for all sorts of reasons. The weather has shifted for all sorts of reasons."
He admitted: "We got to the stage where we were looking to the winter where we did not have enough cash. We have put a lot of money into this business. We would have had to put in a lot more. You just want the pain to stop. The pain continues. I have spent hours on the phone to staff. I care about them. We have always treated them as family. It is devastating."
His criticism of Torbay Council parking policies after the advent of parking meters and more double yellow lines is well documented. All his pleas in the past for help and ideas have fallen on deaf ears. Now it is too late.
He says it's not just about parking. "You have to have something like the big wheel at Torquay or the circus on Paignton Green to bring people in. People want to have more of a reason to be there but if you then penalise them with parking when they do come in it is imbecilic.
"I think you need to be clear when you are talking about Torbay. If you want to change this for the better you need an identity. You have to believe in your town. We have never achieved that. We have moved further and further away from that.
"The other change in Torbay is that people have turned away. They used to look at their neighbours. Now they have turned their back on society and are either at home watching the hundreds of TV channels or are on the internet. They are not looking at what is happening in their communities. We have to find a way of getting everybody on board.
"That's talking about charismatic leadership. There is no picture. The lack of people pulling together is evident."
Frank is not alone with his concerns. Others who have been trading in the Bay are just as concerned about where the resort and, in particular, our town centres are going.
Take John Doble. He has run his jewellers shop in Fleet Street, Torquay, for 30 years. He is hoping to get a little competition off the ground to recognise those shops and shop workers that go that extra mile to put some pride back in the town.
He cites high business rates as one problem and says: "Businesses are dying on their feet. I know of lots of businesses who are really struggling. We are lucky in that we do not have to pay rent.
"Over the past 30 years, I have been putting various things in place to make sure we will survive no matter what. I feel sorry for businesses that have been running properly for 30 years and then people have to walk away — 30 years of working hard and having no family life.
"Perhaps they did not think about it enough. But you should not have to think about it if you work hard and come up with a reasonable product. That should be enough to keep you in business."
He reckons: "Councils do not support town centres. The town centres are going to wither and die."
Frank Sobey had the parking meters as his pet hate. John Doble's hobby horse has been the buses that travel up and down outside his shop in a pedestrian priority area.
He still insists one measure to help rejuvenate the area is: "Stop the buses. It is not rocket science."
He talks about different laws that are strangling business. "If you play music in the workshop, you could be fined if you don't have a licence. In a moment you won't be allowed to sing."
Both Frank and John are singing from the same hymn sheet. And, as I say, once the grandees of shopping in the Bay start expressing their concerns it is a sign that time is running out for change, redevelopment, regeneration and simple common-sense.