AMBITIOUS plans to blast the Victorian Market into the 21st century and make it a "must-see tourist attraction" are being drafted – and Invernessians are being urged to have their say.
Planners believe they have seen the future after tasting the phenomenal success of a retail renaissance in a leading market town 400 miles south of Inverness, where a shopping venue decimated by recession has bounced back.
They intend to emulate that success in the Highland capital, their excitement unbound after a recce of the Manchester market town of Altrincham.
It recovered from the ignominy, just eight years ago, of having the UK’s highest toll of shop vacancies to become a bustling money-spinner that is also said to have enhanced the social life of the community.
Its rescuers cited high business rates, objectionable parking charges and fierce competition from both the internet and the construction of the nation’s second biggest shopping centre on its doorstep for its past demise.
A carefully-crafted solution was thrashed out between local entrepreneurs, Trafford Council and townsfolk eager to create something special, with independent retailers leading the resurgence.
Inverness’s Victorian Market manager Jo Murray (right) and her colleagues now want to replicate that success in the north, beginning imminently with the start of a three-stage refurbishment of the historic complex.
"Unlimited" proposals will follow, with the aim of creating a "social hub" boasting an array of independent shops and cafés and possibilities of events and promotions of the city’s arts.
Transport agency Hitrans, a key player in the redevelopment of Inverness railway station, identified Altrincham as having a similar demographic to Inverness, suggesting its experience could prove useful.
Mrs Murray, who was joined by Victorian Market and council representatives as well as city provost Helen Carmichael on the trip to Altrincham, said: "It was very inspiring.
"Trafford Council decided to invest in its market as a start point, redeveloped it and, as a result of them regenerating the market, a natural regeneration then happened around the area.
"It has subsequently attracted lots of new, independent shops and businesses.
"It really is a vibrant centre.
"The community worked closely with the business improvement district in Altrincham, which was intrinsic in the delivery.
"People were encouraged to contribute their comments and we’ll be doing the same. It’s something we’re excited to share with the wider community because it’s been a long time since there’s been any major development work here in the market."
Equally impressed with the turnaround, Inverness city manager David Haas is confident that the Victorian Market can be transformed into a "beacon" for the city.
"We want it to be in the same vein as the castle – a must-see tourist attraction," he said.
Trafford Council leader Sean Anstee, whose local authority helped steer the Manchester town’s resurgence, has shared some tips and sent Inverness his best wishes.
He said: "Altrincham has been through a renaissance over the last few years. But it happened with many more years’ determination that change needed to happen.
"We had a vision that we needed to create an Altrincham that was fit for the future but also reflected its historic past – if you like, to create a ‘modern market town’ built around the Market House and surrounding area.
"The council provided civic leadership to the revival but it was really a true partnership of the public and private sector with the community."
He said some people feared change, but that resilience was key to the success.
He added: "It was fantastic to host Inverness recently in Altrincham – very best wishes in your future endeavours."
Shop vacancies in Altrincham have been cut by almost three-quarters since 2010, while footfall has reportedly risen by more than 25 per cent.
The council is currently looking at reducing parking charges in a bid to attract more shoppers.
As a result of the turnaround, £3 million has been invested in town centre improvements including footpaths, parking and crossing points.
The cost of transforming Inverness’s Victorian Market is expected to be met solely by the city’s common good fund though the amount is unknown at this stage and the timescale is yet to be confirmed.
The market will be launching its own website in due course to update people about the revamp.