Adorned with gold painted cherubic boys clutching dolphins, the cast iron water fountain has been at the heart of the High Street in Dumfries for 140 years. 

Partly paid for by the people of the town, with the red stone steeple a stone’s throw away and the statue of Robert Burns at the head of the street, the ornate fountain’s unveiling in 1882 drew crowds to the bustling town centre in their droves. 

As years passed, just like many Scottish towns, the family-run shops, hotels and cafes changed hands. Big name retailers moved in and, as time wore on, the “to let” signs began to appear. 

Now, however, that same community spirit that raised £191.0s 6d from local people to pay for their 19th century fountain is helping to revive Dumfries High Street, in a project that, it is hoped, will provide inspiration for other towns up and down the country. 

Rather than wait for someone else to step in to breathe new life into the empty shops and buildings, local people are pushing ahead with plans to take back control of their neglected high street. 

Work is expected to start within weeks on the first High Street building to be reclaimed from lying empty. 

While its Victorian frontage with all its unique character will remain in place, a £2.8 million redevelopment will see the former Baker’s Oven shop reborn as seven new affordable rent flats, with space for start-up businesses, art exhibitions and social and community enterprise projects. 

Named “The Oven”, it is one of eight retail units included in community-run Midsteeple Quarter’s innovative plans to rejuvenate the heart of the town as a place to live, visit, shop, dine and be entertained. 

The Herald:

The innovative project is being eyed up by towns and organisations across the 
UK, anxious to see if its community buy-out model might be a viable option to help transform other places hit by a shift towards internet shopping and out of town retail parks.

“For a long time the town centre was bookies, charity shops and empty units. Dumfries has just said ‘enough is enough’,” says Evie Copland, chairwoman of the community benefit society, Dumfries High Street Ltd, which is behind the Midsteeple Quarter project. 

“People had been buying buildings in the High Street for too long and not giving us something we could be proud of.

“As people began to use their collective voices, we have been able to get a special development off the ground. 

“The Oven is the flagship, and a blueprint to show what the people of Dumfries can do.”

The plans have been brewing since 2016 when the town’s artist-led development trust, The Stove Network, carried out research to find out what the future of High Street might be and to ask local people what they wanted.

“There were a number of issues,” says Scott Mackay, manager of The Midsteeple Quarter.

“One was ownership of High Street buildings. We discovered a lot are owned by absentee landlords who lived elsewhere, people not with a vested interest in the town.”

“Funds and investment companies had been buying up the buildings and renting out ground floors to national retail chains. Sometimes these buildings have two more floors, but they just lie empty. 

“It is the same at high streets up and down the country – every one had the same shops and streets had lost their local character.”

“As high streets contracted, there was out of town retail and internet shopping, so a lot of shop units were lying empty and the values of buildings dropped.”

With buildings which once carried a £1m price tag now valued at around half that, and vacant units with sky-high rents but no sign of new occupants, hopes grew that the townspeople could use community buy-out legislation to help them take over empty properties. 

Inspired by rural land community buy-outs in places such as Eigg, Assynt and Gigha, and driven by the town’s creative and artistic community, the Dumfries plan was designed to be Scotland’s first “urban” buy-out. 

Within weeks of its launch and a mock high street protest aimed at highlighting empty shops, the community benefit company had attracted hundreds of £1 shareholders eager to have their say in forging a new-look town centre. 

Their plans were boosted two years ago, when Dumfries & Galloway Council agreed to hand over the former Bakers’ Oven building in an asset transfer deal that cost the group just £1. 

It’s meant the group has not yet had to draw on community ownership legislation, while funds for The Oven’s redevelopment have come from a variety of sources including the Regeneration Capital Grant Fund which is delivered in partnership between the Scottish Government and COSLA, and South Scotland Enterprise Fund. 

Planning approval for The Oven is expected next month. Demolition work to the rear will begin later this year, with hopes it will be finished within 15 months.

The organisation is also in the process of raising funds to buy two other units and has approached the owners of two others. 

Mr Mackay said the intention is to create a vibrant blend of retail, affordable housing, exhibition and arts space, with entertainment and food and drink outlets helping to transform the area into a bustling hub.

“An obstacle for high streets for a long time has been a ‘retail only’ or ‘retail first’ planning requirement,” he added. “It meant that by 6pm everything in the High Street would be dead. We want the units to have different uses, so there’s some life in the evening.

"That has to happen in high streets everywhere – there’s not enough in the retail market for high streets to be what they once were.”