THE owners of empty shops in Borders towns should be more flexible in the lease conditions they demand from potential tenants.
That is the view of Gillian Morgan who, with her business partner Lesley Johnson, officially launched a multi-faceted retail business, Rum and Milk, in North Bridge Street, Hawick, on Saturday morning.
After the town’s Drums and Fifes had performed in the sunshine and free samples of the eponymous tipple – synonymous with Hawick Common Riding – were enjoyed at the opening ceremony, mum-of-four Gillian reflected on the journey from “good business idea” to “reality”.
“Finding premises which were affordable proved the most difficult task,” she admitted. “We were shocked at some of the rents being sought by shop landlords and that most of them insisted on a minimum 12-month lease which just seems so unrealistic in the current economic climate and when high streets in many of the region’s towns, including Hawick, are scarred with empty shops.”
By happy chance, the site the pair eventually chose – the well-known local landmark known as the Coffin End – was being advertised for let by its owner John Miller from Selkirk.
“The premises, which had been a restaurant until last Christmas, were ideally located, close to The Horse monument and Trinity Gardens, and in an area of the town which, in retail terms, is still relatively thriving,” said Gillian.
“We told Mr Miller about our big idea and how enthusiastic we were and he agreed to offer us a three-month lease, with a one-month rolling clause thereafter. While we are naturally confident our business will be a great success, we wanted to tread carefully, especially as we had been knocked back for a start-up grant from Scottish Borders Council which claimed our proposal was not sustainable.
“That was hugely disappointing and, if we had been then forced into a year-long-lease at an exhorbitant rent, we would have had to think again. Mr Miller’s support has made it all happen and I hope other landlords adopt a similarly flexible approach. If not, I fear our beleaguered town centres will wither further and die.”
Gillian, who has run many charity events for her church, and Lesley, a programme leader in the business and employability faculty at Borders College, have been lifelong friends.
“After the 2008 Common Riding, both of us were very disappointed at the standard of the stalls at Hawick Moor, which is a huge civic picnic, so we approached the Common Riding Committee to see if we could improve things,” recalled Gillian,
“We spoke to lots of local craftspeople and the next year around 20 of them took stalls; the following year there were no fewer than 42 represented and we also helped organise a food court.
“So we knew there was a ready-made supply chain from people desperate the sell their high-quality wares outwith the two days of Hawick Moor and that is how the idea for a shop to stock these goods all year round came about.”
The ladies also approached tartan specialists Lochcarron and, together, they designed an official Hawick Common Riding tartan which was also launched on Saturday.
Featuring the familiar blue and gold, and with the blessing of the Common Riding Committee, it is available in waistcoats, equestrian stocks, ties, bow-ties, travel rugs, scarves, bags, purses and even pram blankets. Rum and Milk also merchandises Hawick RFC tops and sells a range of other craft products, including ice-cream and tablet.
“We have created a one-stop shop for all that is best in what Hawick produces, creating an ideal source of gifts for local shoppers and souvenirs for visitors,” said Gillian. “We saw a niche in the market and we have jumped into it.”