The vital signs are good as Ayr looks forward to a wealthier future. Ken Mann takes the town's pulse.

Location on an idyllic coastline in Burns Country does not automatically resonate with connectivity to the commercial front line. But as the County Town, Ayr has taken its leadership role seriously.

Infrastructure is an obvious central plank of business planning. A cargo and passenger airport, effectively on the doorstep at Prestwick - and set for a new era of development opportunity - coupled to a fast electrified rail line to Glasgow and beyond, make Ayr a viable centre for wider national and international trade across defined growth sectors. The road routes south are also good.

Ayr as a wider settlement is home to almost 50,000 people and the town centre has 5,370 residents. Business-wise, there are 845 enterprises in the town; that embraces 260 in retail, 110 in accommodation and food services, and 190 in business and professional services. Employment is dominated by the public administration and health sectors.

Of the £1.920 billion of gross value add (GVA) - the annual value of goods and services produced in the South Ayrshire Council area - approximately £460m is generated in Ayr. Councillor Bill McIntosh, Leader of South Ayrshire Council, is both pragmatic and upbeat. "Yes, there are challenges - as there are in town centres across the country," he admits. "Improving the town centre is a key priority for the council - but there's a lot of work going on to ensure the town centre is vibrant, healthy and sustainable. Ayr's recent accolade as Scotland's Healthiest High Street is just one example of that.

"Work is under way to ensure Ayr lives up to its potential as a retail and employment destination and we can already see that making a difference with the volume of vacant retail space decreasing - from 9.8 per cent in 2012 to 4 per cent in 2015. To support business start-ups and growth, we created our aptly-named Ambition enterprise and employment programme. This offers advice, support, funding and business incubator space, which has helped support 285 new jobs, safeguard 665 jobs, and help 500 young people find work, across South Ayrshire."

Town centre specific elements to the Ambition programme include grant funding for shop-front improvements, enhancing overall footfall potential. And high-end supermarket brand Waitrose will soon set-up shop in Ayr.

Graham Hamilton, managing director at commercial property specialists PJ Leggate & Co is confident on footfall propects. His company is redeveloping the town's Kyle Shopping Centre and has acquired the Arran Mall. He says: "Ayr and Ayrshire is a good strong catchment. It combines people who are earning Glasgow salaries but are commuting from Ayr where house price costs are lower. It's also got three of the wealthiest micro-catchments - a lot of people retire to places like Alloway, Prestwick and Troon. In terms of disposable income it's got a very sound footing."

He talks of "re-inventing" the Kyle Centre; planning consents are in place. A multiplex cinema is coming, with important co-location of restaurants.

"That accommodates the changing consumer," he adds. "Town centres are not all about shopping, they need to adapt. Small businesses need that footfall - day and night."

Research commissioned by Leggate, specifically examining the co-location of restaurants with a major cinema, reveals that Ayr's annual consumer catering spend, at £32.9 million, is ahead of the city of Inverness (£29.3 million).

Val Russell, Ayrshire Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive, concedes there remains work to but in the collective opinion of the business community, progress to date bodes well.

"While perhaps not the economic hub it once was, Ayr has much to offer going forward," she says. "There is a very proactive private sector working toward the regeneration to Ayr Town Centre to combat a period of decline, to revitalise the high street and restore it to its former glory days. The private sector is also active in developing the town's retail parks in a bid to attract more traffic to Ayr.

"The A77 between Ayr and Glasgow has always been good and the upgrade in 2003 improved access. However, the road infrastructure south of Ayr requires investment to improve links with Stranraer.

"Ayr is served by a frequent rail link to Glasgow and Edinburgh, has access to Glasgow Prestwick Airport - which is also in the running to be the home of the UK Spaceport, and Ayr Harbour is an important freight hub. Both offer substantial freight opportunities."

Source: Sunday Herald

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