With comparatively healthy numbers of residents and jobs, a move to attract new people and businesses back to the town centre is sure to revitalise historic Ayr, writes Dominic Ryan

Ask anyone who does not live there to think about Ayr. The chances are they will immediately conjure up images of rolling farmland, sandy beaches and rocky cliffs. They may even mention several magnificent castles or renowned golf courses - yes, there really are that many to choose from.

The truth is, for many, the town of Ayr will always be considered in the wider context of Ayrshire and its beautiful west coast vistas.

And there is more virtue than vice, for the town has always been and will always be a direct product of its environment.

Ayrshire's most famous sons and daughters, from our historic bard Robert Burns to modern day Olympians such as curler Rhona Martin, are creations of a landscape at once inimitable yet endearingly familiar.

And it is this backdrop that gives Ayr its centre-stage qualities.

Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland's Towns Partnership, says: "I believe Ayr's unique selling point is its coastal location and natural beauty, both in terms of surrounding scenery and its historic and more recent built environment.

"Because it is located far enough away from the major cities, it has evolved into a 'sub regional capital' and this has led to much of its development and to how it has been shaped over time - first of all as a centre for religion, markets and administration and more recently as a regional residential, retail, tourism and educational hub."

The history to which Prentice refers is a rich seam - certainly one that would intrigue Neil Oliver, the boy who grew up in Ayr and became a celebrity TV historian.

Ayr is one of Scotland's oldest towns. It first emerged around 1197 and it was here the first parliament in Scotland was held. A few years later a Royal Burgh was created by King William the Lion.

From 1261 it held the first of what was to become an annual fair, gradually attracting buyers and sellers from all over until, steadily, the town grew as an administrative base and market town.

Fish, iron, coal, wool and hides, salt and wine were soon being imported via the harbour. It prospered as the "County Town".

On April 26, 1315, Robert The Bruce held the first Parliament of Scotland at St John's Tower by the sea. Later, in 1652, the town was used as a base and fortress for Oliver Cromwell's men.

The Victorian era brought innovation via the railway - and with that came a major growth in population and economic activity centred on day visitors from Glasgow.

Despite its failure to fully industrialise, Ayr grew rapidly. The population in 1851 was 21,000 but by 1951 it had more than doubled to 44,000. Today's population stands at around 47,000 - Ayr is still the largest town in the region and performs the role of a traditional market town and administrative centre.

There are 22,000 households and 24,000 jobs, higher numbers than in most towns similar to Ayr. Most of these jobs are in education, public administration and retail.

In fact, Ayr acts as the business hub for the wider South Ayrshire, which is home to around 4,000 businesses, 96 per cent of which are small or micro.

Prentice points out modern Ayr's key strength - its location - is also its main challenge.

"Its peripherality from both the Edinburgh and Glasgow city economies means it will struggle to attract significant inward investments and to retain its high achievers and graduates," he says. "However, its USP should be about the high quality of life and its natural environment - which is family-friendly.

"Ayr is a great location for young families to invest once they've sampled the city and decided to settle down."

As Managing Director of Ayr Renaissance, the company responsible for South Ayrshire Council's regeneration strategy for the town centre, you would expect David Bell to be equally enthusiastic about the attractions of Ayr.

He cites highlights such as the quality of life, beaches, racecourses, arts and culture. However, he also acknowledges there are challenges are particular to Ayr.

"There has been a shift of retail pitch to the top of the town, leaving large-scale vacancies around the town hall and the bottom of the town," he says. "This means there is an opportunity to introduce new uses in the town centre to attract visitors including public open space, hotel and residential, supported by festivals, exhibitions and so on."

He points out recent council planning decisions have supported the town centre, while the work being carried out by Ayr Renaissance has a keen eye on the future.

He explains: "We have three current areas of focus - Heritage, Town Centre Management and Physical Regeneration."

He notes, too, that a recently launched business-to-business website is enabling organisations to share information and discuss ideas for the town. Tangible, physical regeneration has focussed on the Riverside Block where Ayr Renaissance is proactively undertaking a process of site assembly to bring the entire block into a single owner, as a catalyst to comprehensive redevelopment.

Public consultation is about to be undertaken on a development framework. Potential uses include retail, arts/culture, residential, hotel and offices.

Funding has been provided by South Ayrshire Council and Scottish Government via its Regeneration Capital Grant scheme. Such investment at all levels augurs well for the future of the town.

Prentice points out Ayr recognises its town centre needs significant long-term investment to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century.

"If Ayr is to survive and thrive it must be seen as a genuine option to compete with the likes of East Renfrewshire or East Dunbartonshire for new residents," he says.

"It can challenge both on house prices, green spaces and education, and to a certain extent connectivity as it has great rail, road, air and sea routes.

"It surpasses both in terms of the unique quality of coastal location but at present its town centre is letting it down.

"To attract this type of discerning resident, the town must become more active, attractive and accessible. The Council and its partners have recognised that the town centre faces some major challenges.

"In order to remedy this they are just about to go through a re-visioning which will be centred on the Town Centre Action Plan, will be based on genuine community engagement and will embrace new concepts around the Place Standard, culture, heritage and enterprise.

"This supportive approach should create an energy and a message that Ayr is changing for the better."

Thankfully, it is not starting from scratch. Ayr can boast many building blocks already in place: primarily its location amid outstanding natural beauty, and good access by road, rail, sea and air.

David Bell adds: "Ayr has a very strong educational record, vibrant arts and culture scene, excellent high quality affordable residential accommodation, Scotland's only Grade A racecourse, a fantastically popular beach and the thriving Gaiety Theatre.

"Ayr is a town of many assets and a much more resilient town centre than many in Scotland."

Source: Sunday Herald

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