TORBAY is reeling from the body blow of losing two top High Street names in prime locations.
Long established Jessops Photography in Union Street, Torquay, has closed and Burton Menswear in Paignton is to shut on January 19. It is believed half a dozen jobs could be lost. The Torquay branch of Burton shut in 2011 after 74 years. Its parent group, Arcadia, last April opened a shop at the out of town complex at the Willows selling Burton clothes.
Jessops cited the Torquay store's poor trade as the main reason for the closure. The company said it would redeploy affected staff in other parts of the company where possible.
The news comes after the closure of other big names last year including Monsoon, Early Learning Centre and Past Times.
It is understood, however, that some new operators are looking at Torquay, while others are considering expansion.
Traders who have been waiting for a Torbay Council parking review since a special meeting last August, fear resistance to parking charges may have played a part in the loss of trade. The parking review is expected to go to a council meeting at the end of the month.
Business people across South Devon have also warned a proposed Government delay in revaluating high rates could sound the death knell for more businesses. While High Street rents in areas like Torquay have in some cases halved, rates bills look set to remain at the high values based on peak figures of 2008 for years to come. A cross district campaign has been launched.
John Doherty, chairman of the Torquay Business Improvement District steering group and owner of the town centre Dot's Pantry cafe, who has campaigned for realistic business rates, said: "The current rates are completely unfair. The bigger the business the less you pay, particularly for the front of the property. We need a level playing field."
He added: "I am also concerned that parking issues are a major player in this."
He questioned the closure decision by Jessops as photography is one of the fastest growing hobbies and said: "This represents a real opportunity for an independent trader to open the only camera shop in Torquay."
James Cross, chairman for the Torbay Chamber of Trade, believes a deeper look into the issues facing the Torbay high street is now needed.
He said: "Perhaps Torbay is being hit harder than other parts of the country. There are several factors; losing business to other business centres in Devon, and maybe parking. We need a long term sustainability plan."
On the Burton closure in Paignton, Matthew Clarke, chairman of the Paignton Business Improvement District steering group, said: "The store used to break sales records in the South West per square foot. It's extraordinary that this store has closed and yet Brixham's remains open.
"We need brand names in the town. We have more than 10,000 students around from South Devon College so there must be an opportunity there."
Richard Rendle-Jones, centre director at Union Square in Torquay, said their footfall figures for the Christmas season were on a par with similar resorts and better than some. He said Government measures on lending could help ease the situation in 2013.
He revealed: "We have had inquiries for units, including the former JJB Sports shop."
Paul Bettesworth, director for retail and business space at Bettesworths, said they had received several inquiries for units in the Bay, some from national retailers.
He said landlords were keen to get units let and he said rents had dropped for example from a high in 2007/8 of £90 a square foot for prime retail space to £40 to £45.
He said: "But even if they charge a zero rent there is still a major liability for business rates."
Chris Griffin, owner of the popular tourist land train in Torbay, believes the area can learn from the business models of neighbouring Totnes and Dartmouth. He said: "We need more individual businesses such as second hand book shops as Torbay can't compete with other parts of Devon.
"My business was down around 20 per cent last year."
Jessops, which opened the Torquay store in 1998, said it was continuing a programme of updating stores, with the nearest in Exeter and Plymouth. The company said: "As part of this improvement programme the profitability of existing stores are assessed to establish their on-going commercial viability. Unfortunately the Torquay store no longer meets the profitability criteria."
Burton confirmed the closure of the Paignton store and said they were working hard to redeploy staff within other Arcadia stores.
Ian Broadfoot, chief executive of Torbay Town Centres Company, said: "These are very difficult times for the retail sector and town centres across the country. We continue to work hard with the public and private sectors to continue to develop vibrant town centres in Torbay.
"We would also continue to encourage central and local government to help town centres in innovative ways and to reduce costs for both businesses to trade in and customers to visit town centres. Reducing parking charges and introducing pay on exit parking for example would be of great benefit."
In a poll on our website thisissouthdevon.co.uk of more than 2,400 readers who answered whether they thought parking was good value in Torbay, 92 per cent said they go out of town or to other centres while eight per cent said it was value for money.