CITIZENS in Aberdeen are throwing their weight behind a new campaign to revitalise its most famous street.

Thousands of local people have offered suggestions to revive the fortunes of Union Street, which has become blighted in recent years by an increasing number of shop vacancies amid the travails of the retail sector and the challenges the oil and gas industry has faced. These ideas are being whittled down to several immediate priorities, chief among which is tidying up the thoroughfare and making it more appealing to potential tenants.

The Our Union Street campaign is led by energy services veteran Bob Keiller, the former chief executive of Aberdeen-based Wood Group.

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Mr Keiller, a former chairman of Scottish Enterprise and part of the team that rescued Glencraft, the luxury mattress manufacturer and social enterprise, said: “We are funnelling down on the areas where we need to concentrate our efforts but all of it is driven by the input from the public, rather than experts or people with strong opinions or vested interests.

“We have to make the place feel more loved. For instance, we have empty retail units on the street and they look as though nobody cares about them. We need them to look their best not only to get them to a place where we can attract new occupants, whatever those occupants may be, but also to a point where any there in the meantime actually look as though they are cared for and are interesting, and we have not big to-let boards and all the kind of other stuff that brings down the whole aesthetic of the street.

“Another example is about physically making sure the street is clean and tidy and bright, and it is not covered in any graffiti or stickers or chewing gum, and mobilising volunteers to help with that effort.

“There is a third area. Like most cities and towns, Aberdeen has lots and lots to commend it, if you dig deep enough. We need to dig and pull out the culture, the art, the history, and turn them into attractions and events that people can come and enjoy.

“At the moment, these are not as open and accessible as they could be, and that is about using technology, storytelling techniques, graphics, whatever it takes to be able to create assets for the city that people will be able to come and enjoy.”

Mr Keiller, who along with others is giving up his own time to spearhead the campaign, underlined the strength of support the project has drummed up within the local community, noting that 1,200 people had volunteered to help out when the call went out for support earlier this year.

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“That was an indicator to us people cared enough about the city centre to want to help,” he said. “That gave us the confidence to keep going forward because people care, therefore we can’t let them down.

“We have to keep going forward despite the potential obstacles that might come our way.”

Asked what could be done to encourage prospective tenants to take up space, he said: “One of the things in particular is to make sure people understand all of the support that is already available through different bodies, and almost lay that in front of people and say: did you know this?

“The second part really is to talk to the owners and letting agents of the properties and have a discussion with them about what their expectations are about rental income, for instance, and making sure that we can create a commercially attractive offering.

“It is getting all of the elements of the story correct up-front rather than saying we just wish someone would come along and magically find this place.”

Mr Keiller added that he was “quite agnostic” about the type of business or organisation he would like to see move into the vacant premises on Union Street, saying they could be retailers, social enterprises or food and beverage outlets.

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The campaign is not being prescriptive about the kind of tenants it is looking to attract the street, he explained, noting that the primary objective is to create a “compelling offering”, fill the units and drive footfall.

He said: “We don’t start with that luxury – we start with a street that is 80% occupied and 20% empty.

“How do we fill in the 20% without filling it with vape shops and bookies and things like that.”

Mr Keiller added: “In the longer run, the city’s long-term prosperity will need more people to live and work in the city centre. There are unused spaces in the city centre above ground level that are potential development opportunities. But I have to say our focus at the moment is to stay at street level until we have dealt with some of the more obvious and prominent issues, so we can earn the trust that allows us to move on to what we need to do for the longer term to encourage people to come and develop and move businesses and residences into the city centre.”

Despite the travails of Union Street, Mr Keiller said the outlook for the Aberdeen economy was bright.

“If I put it this way, the two retailers who are expanding are both top-end jewellery stores,” he said.

“I think the local economy is relatively vibrant and that is why I think having a city centre that doesn’t reflect that vibrancy is a concern, therefore it needs to have some energy put into it to try and reverse that decline.”

Mr Keiller highlighted the potential offered by the energy transition from fossil fuel extraction in the North Sea to renewables. Many of the skills used in the North Sea could be transferred to the renewable energy sector.

“Aberdeen is well placed to be at the forefront of that transition,” Mr Keiller said.