‘QUEEN Of Shops’ Mary Portas came to Nelson yesterday on a mission to revive its central area and declared: “We can do it.”

After a rainy, grey, whistle-stop tour the she was enthusiastic about the possibilities of creating a vibrant new life for the historic heart of the town.

It was the retail guru’s first visit to Nelson since awarding it £100,000 last summer as one of 12 Portas Towns under a government drive to regenerate ailing high streets.

Her tour took in a meeting with Nelson’s town team at the ACE Centre, a visit to Scotland Road and the near-empty Victory Centre and examining work to refurbish the main library.

Miss Portas said: “This is the first time I have visited Nelson. It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous even on a grey rainy Tuesday.

“There is some fine Victorian architecture here and great energy from everyone involved with the town centre. They really care.

“It’s not like some town centres I have visited where you really wonder what on earth you can do.

“I really think we going to be able the manage this.”

She was keen to stress that the projects to revive Nelson centre had to come from local people but was impressed with the range of ideas on offer – stressing the need for a plan with ‘two or three winners’ to be developed and then be given the full commitment of the borough council, town traders, Nelson and Colne College, and residents.

Among the ideas she favoured were:

  • Creating Nelson’s own answer to Rusholme’s Curry Mile along Manchester Road;
  • Using ‘creative co-operation’ to get three or four businesses to lease premises together to create retail mini-markets; 
  • Encouraging the creation of low-cost flats for students and young people in the town centre; 
  • Clearing council red-tape out of the way of new, small businesses; and 
  • Offering cheap ‘peppercorn’ starter rents to new firms wanting to take leases in the central area.

She was also impressed with the success of the arts and vintage market at the Victory centre in October, where small traders took £11,000 between them in a few days.

Nelson and Colne college student Ameena Bibi, 18, told Miss Portas how success at the event had led her to set up her own business making and selling designer candles.

Pendle council regeneration chief Paul White and Nelson’s Apprentice TV show star Azhar Siddique were keen to capitalise on the town’s Asian community by setting up a Curry Mile in competition with Manchester’s highly successful equivalent in Rushholme. Miss Portas said: “That’s a splendid idea, really good. Why should local people travel to Bradford or Manchester for a curry?

“The retail landscape changes every 50 years. The High Street is never going to be the same again.

“We need to build on what people do locally and find out what people want in their town centre.

“We need a mix of leisure, social interaction, shopping, health and learning. The high street has to offer what people cannot do on the internet or by getting in their car and going to an out of town shopping centre.

“There has to be something for everybody – the young and the older residents. If you bring young people into the town centre to live they will bring life with them.”

Coun White was enthusiastic about the prospects of a Portas-style Nelson: “We are never going to fill 69 empty shops but I think we can really revive the town centre. Mary Portas coming has given people confidence and belief.”

Mr Siddique said: “Nelson town centre has really improved in the last five years. I think we can build on this, the town’s history and its multi-cultural nature for the future.”

Not everyone was so hopeful.

Shirley Travis, 77, from Barrowford, said: “I think it’s too late to save Nelson town centre now. It’s gone.”

Owner of The Pet Store in Market Square Les Brown said: “Mary Portas is better than nothing, Nelson has been through bad times. We’ve got to try and do whatever is needed to revive it.”

Ahmed Niser of Impressions Hair Salon on the square was more optimistic: “It’s the right thing to do at the right time.”

John Rayson, who runs Appetite delicatessen and takeaway opposite the Ace Centre where Miss Portas started and finished her tour said: “I think her initiative is a good thing but she has got a challenge to revive the town’s shopping area.”