Rachel Anderson's Northern Echo column published 28 February.
Its always nice when we buck a national trend around here.When you think about it we are a naturally contrary lot, whether its our refusal to believe hyperthermia is a 'thing' or our unshakeable faith in the culinary masterpiece that is parmo despite strong opposition from elsewhere.For all us contrary Marys on the banks of the Tees, it seems we are a little different to others, especially when it comes to going out, and when we are eating, even better.
Jamie Oliver doesn’t visit this region much, if he did he'd probably be quite rude about parmos.His restaurant troubles of late have been well documented and seem symptomatic of a wider trend in what seems to be the new buzz phrase "mid-market" restaurants, mainly chains.Analysis shows that in the rest of the country overblown rents, falling standards and second helpings of private equity cash have led to an unsustainable sector which grew rapidly elsewhere in the mid noughties, but not hugely in the Tees Valley.Perception of our town centres was always a problem and catalyst schemes did not spark investment.A stubborn unemployment rate and the sense that there was not money about led to a lot of vacant retail units.
But in the last 18 months things appear to be turning around, yes, we've lost a couple of high profile independents in Darlington but take a walk through Middlesbrough and new chains are opening, shop units are filling up and the leisure sector is booming.A glance at proposed developments in Stockton point to a number of new outlets no doubt driven by the promise of large Globe Theatre audiences and an influx of young, internationals students has prompted a move to an early evening family orientated economy.All over the Tees Valley, the town centre offer is changing, moving away from traditional retail domination and lager barns and into more family friendly operations which offer the opportunity to linger – perhaps the European way spending our leisure time and that much vaunted trend of the 1990s "the café society" has finally reached Teesside.
Of course, the issues making life difficult to the retail and leisure sector such as business rates, absentee landlords and building quality don’t go away, nor do wage pressures and wafer-thin margins.However, the Tees Valley is an attractive prospect for leisure investors who can clearly make money here when they can’t elsewhere and that has to be indicative of a healthy economy.