The Open Business Forum held in the Assembly Rooms on 15th March was a great success, attracting nearly 40 people from the business community, residents and voluntary sector.
Alton’s Mayor, Cllr Matthew Bayliss, opened the evening with an announcement that Specsavers had kindly agreed to sponsor key town events, including the Last Night of the Proms.
Leah Coney, the town clerk, then set out the Town Council’s plan for growth in line with the Neighbourhood Plan and explained the rationale behind the creation of the business development manager position for the whole town. The role is a joint partnership between East Hampshire District Council and Alton Town Council.
Julie McLatch, the business development manager for Alton, then gave a brief overview of her role and gave specific examples of success since her arrival in August – from a well attended event at the town hall focussing on capital funding for businesses, to an apprenticeship breakfast for employers and the extensive work on tourism and related press coverage. Julie also drew attention to a project plan for the first half of 2017, approved by Alton Town Council, to increase the amount of planting and cleaning in the town, to improve the Town Council’s signage throughout the town, and the plan for a shop front improvement grant to be rolled out in the summer. It was encouraging to hear that the number of vacant units had dropped again, and that it was well below the number recorded in the 2015 Neighbourhood Plan.
Julie then handed over to Lateef Iqbal, a director at Specsavers, who explained why Specsavers had chosen to set up in Alton, what they liked about the town and why they would be staying for a number of years.
The evening’s keynote speaker Alan Donegan spoke about his experience assisting businesses to improve their presence, both physically and digitally, and the lessons learned from those projects.
The evening was then given over to the guests to discuss what they considered the town to be at the moment, what they thought the town should aspire to be and how that might be achieved. The discussion was lively, and the feedback from the groups was wide-ranging and insightful.
On the whole the feeling was very upbeat, that Alton is a town for everyone but that it was a ‘hidden gem’ and that more should be made of its rich history and heritage, strong tourist attractions and excellent walking trails (including the links to the South Downs National Park) – coupled with its good transport links. This then led the groups to discuss how best to market the town – and the need for the town to be a modern market town and to raise its profile both in print format but also online. Alan suggested that for certain services Alton was ‘digitally invisible’ and that with some focussed training the businesses could make far more of their offering and attract new audiences. This idea was warmly received.
The Town Council has considered how best to make use of the feedback and as a first step will fund digital training for five local businesses to see how that input can enhance their business and how they might best be rolled out to other businesses in the town. If you are a local business and you would like to take advantage of this offer please contact Julie McLatch on 01420 83986 or firstname.lastname@example.org with your expression of interest by Friday 7th April.
The Town Council was also greatly heartened by the positive attitude in the room and will repeat the Open Forum in the autumn.