Work at Ipswich Cornhill nears completion – but now it needs to be used well

Rebuilding work at Ipswich Cornhill is nearing completion. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Rebuilding work at Ipswich Cornhill is nearing completion. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

Anyone who regularly visits Ipswich town centre can see the progress being made at the Cornhill.

Ipswich Christmas Market needs to be a bit more special. Picture: NIGEL BROWN

Ipswich Christmas Market needs to be a bit more special. Picture: NIGEL BROWN - Credit: Archant

A month ago I was dubious about whether it would be finished by the end of October deadline – now it’s really starting to look as if we are on the last lap of work and it will be ready for the Christmas season.

That is good news. With the new-look area in the heart of the town it should be easier to attract people to Ipswich for the Christmas shopping experience . . . and to persuade them it is an improving place.

But there are still clouds on the horizon and anyone who thinks the opening of the new-look Cornhill is the answer to all the town’s problems really does need to reconnect with reality.

It is a start – but there is a lot of hard work still to do . . . and much of the work may involve breaking a few eggs!

Rebuilding work at Ipswich Cornhill is nearing completion. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Rebuilding work at Ipswich Cornhill is nearing completion. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

One of the first events likely to be held on the new Cornhill could be a the Ipswich Christmas Market. I hope the council thinks long and hard before going ahead with this.

I’m not a great fan of Christmas markets. I’ve only ever been to one I’ve enjoyed and that was in another part of the country.

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In my experience they can be very good and become so crowded that they become unbearable. A few years ago we went to Lincoln Christmas Market and found ourselves herded into a crowd that was forced to circulate in one direction around the castle with no time to stop at any stalls.

It was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life and I never want to go again. I’m told the Bury Christmas Market is heading that way to, and for that reason I’ve always avoided visiting the town during the event.

But I’ve always felt Ipswich’s Christmas Market misses the target for another reason – too often it has felt like a normal market with a bit of tinsel threaded around the stalls.

I’d be delighted to see the Cornhill home to a group of Alpine-chalet style stalls selling something exotic and interesting – hot Gluewein, German Christmas cakes, that kind of thing – but if we just have the same stalls as normal we won’t be able to claim there is anything special here.

And throughout the year there needs to be a strong emphasis on quality for events on the Cornhill. The borough cannot just permit anyone who waves a cheque book in their direction to set up shop in the heart of the town.

Because this area is vital for the future prosperity of Ipswich. The opening of the Cornhill should coincide with the opening of the Pret A Manger.

I know some dismiss this as a posh sandwich shop – but it should create a buzz around that corner of the Cornhill and when the weather is good you should find people eating meals outside in that part of the town.

But the Cornhill needs more than a Pret to create the buzz and there are two major concerns about it.

Firstly the future of Debenhams, the town centre’s largest store. The problems faced by the company have been well documented this week – although retail experts I’ve spoken to continue to assure me that the Ipswich store remains profitable.

Its continued trading is clearly vital to the town centre and hopefully customers will continue to use it.

Secondly the future of the Old Post Office is vital to the heart of the town – and that is looking very uncertain again.

For much of this year it looked as if a national restaurant chain (one you see in places all over the country, but not Ipswich) was preparing to move in.

However many national restaurant chains have been facing problems recently – and this particular company is one of them. It has pulled out of many proposed openings, including Ipswich, meaning the building is back on the market.

It’s a tough one to find a tenant for – the steps at the front mean an alternative entrance has to be created that is compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act and many businesses are wary of taking on an old landmark building.

But hopefully someone will eventually come forward – although it is more likely to be a restaurant or other leisure use than a new retailer.

It will be interesting to see what people think of the new Cornhill when it does reopen. I suspect those who look at it with an open mind, and are not convinced it is the work of the devil and his angels, will feel that the heart of Ipswich looks much better than it did at the start of the year.

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