The next in a series of articles providing an overview of how Stevenage's regeneration is going, what you can expect from the town centre when it’s completed, and hearing from some of the people at the heart of the project. 

In the articles so far, we've answered some of your biggest questions about the regeneration, explored the projects that have already been completed and are still to come, and spoken to representatives of political parties and the Stevenage Development Board.

This week, we've been speaking to businesses in the town centre to hear their views on the regeneration project.

Rick Woodfield runs Frames-A-Plenty in the indoor market, where he's been for 15 years. Overall, he says he's "75 per cent positive" on the regeneration.

"I'm of the realist view that when people say shopping's not the same as it used to be, I can agree with that - and it never will be again because the pandemic has accelerated the rise of internet shopping.

"But for traders in here, like me, who do something that you can't easily get on the internet - I wouldn't say we thrive, but we can make a living."

The Comet: Rick Woodfield runs Frames-A-Plenty in the indoor market.Rick Woodfield runs Frames-A-Plenty in the indoor market. (Image: Christopher Day)

Is the regeneration helping Rick attract more customers?

"No. It hasn't made one iota of difference.

"I'm lucky in that I get a lot of repeat business, but not much of it comes from Stevenage - 65 per cent of our customers come from outside Stevenage, because there's not a picture framer in every town."

The customers come in person "and then they're gone - or they might have a coffee".

"If you're going to have a day out shopping, nobody's going to come to Stevenage, you'll go to Milton Keynes or get on the train to Cambridge because you'll see something different - you won't see an endless parade of coffee shops, nail bars, tattoo parlours, barbers ..."

He thinks the number of flats going up is "a necessary evil".

"I'm not a NIMBY!" He said. 

"It's the way it is, we've all got to live somewhere. What else can you put there, if it's not flats? Car parks? Shops that won't be let, because nobody wants to do it?"

Naomi, who runs The Wool Stall in the indoor market, is critical of the regeneration. The shop has been there for more than fifty years, and Naomi left her full-time job to take it over in July 2022. 

She says: "I think it's a lot of talk, and not a lot of action. They've forgotten about us in the market here.

"I've contacted the regeneration team and asked about how they're going to include the market, but I didn't get a response.

"I would like to know how they're going to get people in, there's nobody coming into the market anymore."

She doesn't think the regeneration has had any positive impact at all on her business.

"I think they should move the market ... to where McDonald's used to be, on the town square."

The Comet: Naomi took over the Wool Stall last year.Naomi took over the Wool Stall last year. (Image: Christopher Day)

"You could have the indoor market there and you could have an outdoor market, with street food and stuff, so people could get straight off the train and think 'OK, let's go for a burger and a beer here'. It could be vibrant and open more in the evenings.

"You've got to think about what brings people into a town centre - they've got to provide an experience for them, so it's all about escape rooms, coffee shops, bars, art galleries, putting on workshops.

"This place [the indoor market] closes at 5.30pm - I'd love to open in the evening and offer evening classes, for example.

"The council really need to sit down with the landlords as well and discuss the cost, because you're not going to get independents in - and the experience is about going to independents.

"So they need to think about what they're charging, and maybe have grants for start-ups, for example."

Dan and Kim run the Geek Retreat, a community board-game café in Park Place.

Dan tells us: "In terms of generating interest and trying to build a better presence, what they're doing seems to be on the right track. They seem like they're doing lots of stuff.

"We're hoping that a few more of these shops immediately around us will slowly fill up.

"It's quite a nice area, this bit has been redeveloped and re-built for us, it was the perfect opportunity for us to come in and take one of the bigger units."

The Comet: Dan runs the Geek Retreat in the town centreDan runs the Geek Retreat in the town centre (Image: Christopher Day)

"Geek Retreat works best not being a central location but off a secondary street, because a lot of people that come down here are socially anxious or neurodivergent, where they don't want lots of people coming in and watching them engaging in their hobbies."

Their customers include people from the flats in the town centre, from elsewhere in Stevenage, and “quite a few people that come up from places like Aston, Hitchin, Baldock." 

Stevenage made sense as a location to set up shop because it's a "bigger, more bustling town" than others nearby.

Dan points to Stevenage's transport links, including the new bus interchange and the railway station, as "things that drew us to here" - especially because the Retreat runs events well into the evening.

They've recently tweaked their hours opening later on some weekdays.

"After 5pm when the general public tend to finish work is when we get a big peak", Dan continued.

"Having more places open in the town would be beneficial to that because it makes it less of a scary place when you're walking out - we shut up at 10pm and it's just us and Fireaway Pizza here open at that time."

Overall, Dan says, they're "very happy with how well it's going".

The Comet: Sticks Stones Spiritual has been open in the Westgate shopping centre since September.Sticks Stones Spiritual has been open in the Westgate shopping centre since September. (Image: Sticks Stones Spiritual)

Diane runs Sticks Stones Spiritual in the Westgate Shopping Centre, where they've been located since September last year.

She's positive about the regeneration's impact on her business, saying that she's "excited that there's been more people coming into the town so therefore more customers".

"I would imagine the flats would bring more people in; I find it quite scary in one way - is there going to be enough parking for these people in the flats? But the idea of having more people in the town is obviously going to increase the number of possible customers.

"And people need to live, don't they? We need the flats, though I know there's a lot of negativity about it."

However, she thinks the council "need to make it clearer what their overall plan is. We just get to hear bits".

Next week, we conclude our regeneration series by reporting on the submissions you've made to our ongoing survey.