WORRIED traders have expressed their fears over the future of once-thriving Fowler Street.
Long regarded as the main shopping thoroughfare into South Shields town centre, it now appears a shadow of its former self.
A Gazette inspection revealed there are now 17 vacant outlets along the length of Fowler Street in both directions.
And existing businesses say they also face an uncertain future given plans to demolish a section of the units over the next decade to enable the £100m South Shields 365 masterplan to become a reality.
In Fowler Street the list of units vacated include the Energy Advice Centre, Uptown Girl, Martech Training, TDG estate agents, Watson and Brown, the British Army Recruitment, South Tyneside Job Search Solutions and Exceed Learning.
The street suffered another body-blow last month when the well-known Riddicks shoe shop closed its doors after 120 years of trading, while a cluster of empty units at its heart is having a definite impact on its commercial viability, say remaining retailers.
The news comes after traders met council officials this week to discuss the town centre.
The situation is worrying for Gill Beard, who runs Apollo Bathrooms, who revealed she is giving up the lease on one of her two units within the next fortnight.
She said: “I just cannot justify two lots of rents and rates any more.
“The town is dead and we just don’t get the footfall or the passing trade that we once did.
“I was at a meeting with the council this week and they were talking about the digital hub and new central library in the Market Place and that they would not be looking at retail for three years.
“That’s too long to wait. What are we going to do in those three years? Businesses are struggling now.
“We are constantly told that the council can’t do anything in regards to the level of our rates, but the rates are put into a central pot which the Government then gives back to the council.
“I don’t want to appear too negative but as traders we have great concerns for the future. The fear is that Fowler Street is becoming the new Frederick Street, and no one can say that is good.”
Ghuman Singh has owned Supertech for 30 years and has “never known business to be so bad”.
He added: “If we didn’t own this building there is no way we could continue trading. We couldn’t afford rent and rates, although there has been a reduction in the rates over the last couple of years.
“It’s like an old western movie here – you can practically see the tumbleweed.
“We’re lucky in that we have been established for so long and have a loyal customer base, otherwise we would be in real trouble.”
John Reay is a partner at Mega PCs, which has been based in Fowler Street for the last 11 years.
He has been told the computer business will need to move within five years as part of town regeneration plans.
Mr Reay said: “The street has been going downhill since Lewins the hardware store and Michael’s Cafe closed.
“We’re lucky in the fact that we have been here for eleven years and we have a foothold here and loyal customers. If we didn’t have that, we would be forced to close up.”
When the council’s 365 town centre vision plan was published last year it acknowledged that the “quality and vitality of Fowler Street improves closer to the town centre with the Denmark Centre and Prince Georg Square.”
The ambitious blueprint seeks to create a new supermarket at the northern end of Fowler Street.
But it’s the timescale of the plans which is worrying traders who say action is needed “sooner rather than later”. Derek Hunter, owner of Carpet Hall, described the street as a “dead end”.
He said: “The closure of Michael’s Cafe was a big blow. That was always busy and customers used to pop in and buy mats and rugs.
“You don’t get that passing trade any more. I think there is greed involved on the part of the council with regard to parking fees – that’s stopping people coming to town.
“This is a listed building so the council would really need to want it to have it knocked down. “But rather than bringing down shops, they should consider investing money to improve the area.”
Coun John Anglin, the council’s lead member for Regeneration and Economy, said: “We know that this is a tough time for traders and the number of vacant units on Fowler Street reflects the impact the recession has had.
“This is by no means just confined to South Shields.
“We are doing everything we can to support our retailers and our 365 masterplan is a measured strategy designed to draw people into a vibrant town centre and encourage them to spend more time and money there by offering a quality shopping and leisure experience.
“As with King Street, many of the units on Fowler Street are not owned by the council.
“However, we are acquiring some property for demolition as part of the regeneration plans, which include a new supermarket at the northern end.
“Fowler Street is a key gateway into South Shields and we are confident that the planned redevelopment of the area will drive footfall and support existing businesses.”