Just weeks before Scotland’s first lockdown, the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal was signed, injecting £214m into the area’s economy over the next decade. The public cash is expected to trigger a further £640m of private sector investment.
The pandemic hit the city centre hard, with hospitality and ‘non-essential’ businesses frustrated when Stirling was placed in level four last autumn, while neighbouring areas stayed in level three. The city’s The Thistles shopping centre lost eight national chains.
“We don’t think the worst has come yet in terms of the national businesses, including branded restaurants,” warns Danielle McRorie-Smith, project director at Go Forth Stirling, which runs the city’s Business Improvement District. “Without these nationals, it makes it harder for the independents, because there’s less footfall.”
Yet Stirling has shown resilience: McRorie-Smith lists 16 businesses that opened during the lockdowns and a further nine due to open soon. “People still want to start businesses, and that will be the saviour of our high street – promoting independent businesses and the unique reasons to visit,” she says.
With shops in Scotland starting to reopen on 5 April – and more reopening alongside hospitality venues on 26 April – Go Forth Stirling will unveil its Street Stories art project on 12 April to draw visitors into the city and promote units available to rent. Empty shop windows will display eight artists’ work, with augmented reality allowing passers-by to get more information on their phones, supported by free wifi launched across the city centre.
Retail, hospitality and leisure businesses will benefit after non-domestic rates relief was extended throughout 2021/22, while local help is also available. Go Forth Stirling scrapped its levy for smaller businesses and offers shopfront improvement grants and e-commerce grants.
Hitting the right notes
Jim Rintoul, who opened Joanie’s Music shop just three weeks before the first lockdown began, is optimistic that the art project, free wifi and other initiatives will bring customers back into the city as lockdown eases. “I hope people will want to come and visit the independent businesses they’ve discovered online during lockdown,” he says.
Rintoul sold strings, guitar picks and other accessories through his website during the lockdowns, and even shipped pedals, amplifiers and other larger items to Austria, the Baltics, and the Philippines via the Reverb website.
Locally, he offered a same-day delivery service. Customers responded by flocking to his shop last summer when it reopened, with trade nearly twice as high as his targets.
Stirling is Rintoul’s hometown and, after working in music shops in Glasgow and London’s famous Denmark Street, he wanted to bring a guitar shop back to the city. “It’s fantastic that people want to support local businesses, but we shouldn’t take that loyalty for granted,” he says. “The lockdowns have taught me to put just as much energy into my business as I would have done if the shop had been open.”
Toasting online successes
Cameron McCann wasn’t born in Stirling but, after 20 years living in the area, he’s clearly proud of all it has to offer, with his Stirling Gin website promoting the city’s restaurants, walks and tourist attractions. “We have the golden triangle of the castle, Bannockburn, and the Wallace Monument to draw in tourists,” he says.
McCann and June, his wife (above), launched Stirling Gin in 2015 and moved into the city’s first legal distillery on the castle rock in 2019, converting an old temperance society hall. Stirling was among the first distilleries to make hand sanitiser when the pandemic began and was an early adopter of online tastings too. It started with virtual distillery tours on a private YouTube channel for customers who bought packs of gin online, and expanded into online tastings.
Physical tours ran for a few weeks last summer, and McCann will use that experience to streamline the tours when his distillery reopens, offering slower-paced tours and running whisky as well as gin tours to promote his new Sons of Scotland whisky range.
As restrictions lift, McCann wants to see businesses working together to promote Stirling. “You don’t need expensive strategies – there are things we can do ourselves,” he says.
Combining bricks and clicks
When Michael Rolland joined his father, Ogilvie, in the family business in 2016, they shifted The Paint Shed’s registered office from Edinburgh to Stirling. They wanted to build a head office and chose Stirling because of the talented workforce available within commuting distance and its excellent transport links to get to the chain’s stores around Scotland.
Their company supplies painters and decorators, as well as the public, and launched its online shop in 2018. “That proved to be the saving grace for the business,” says Rolland.