For two decades, Steven Wyatt has been in a cycle of drug addiction and rehab. In 2006, during a stint in a rehabilitation center, he learned how to restore furniture, a skill that led him to an unexpected place: running his own store in Poole, a coastal town in southwest England.
Mr. Wyatt, 46, is among a handful of beneficiaries of an unusual experiment in real estate and urban renewal. His shop, Restored Retro, is one of 10 businesses that have been given two years free rent for an empty shop front on a small shopping street in Poole called Kingland Crescent.
The offer came from the property’s owner, Legal & General Investment Management, Britain’s biggest investment manager, which has been struggling to revive an almost derelict shopping street next to a mall, in a troubled economy still reeling from the pandemic.
“It was a huge learning curve for them and for us,” Mr Wyatt said. “I’ve never had so much responsibility.”
The rent-free period, which ended in April, not only changed the lives of Mr. Wyatt and several other small business owners, but it also transformed the street, which now has a steady stream of foot traffic in an area that. many locals used to avoid. Even the mall next door bucks the national trend, with more visitors now than in 2019.
Half of the original 10 businesses offered space on Kingland Crescent are still there, and those that left were quickly replaced by new local businesses willing to pay rent. There is a sense that momentum is building in Poole’s transformation.
“Poole is becoming a destination again,” Mr Wyatt said.
Poole is just a few miles away from some of the most expensive seaside estates in the country, but its town center has been stuck in a rut. The mall had swathes of dark, empty spaces, and a chunk of the city’s larger shopping district was trapped in the past, with old brands long forgotten in more vibrant areas.
The shaking of Kingland Crescent began during pandemic lockdowns as Britons mourned the death of their beloved high streets, which are comparable to American high streets. Their survival was a priority for the government, which announced billions in grants to revive them.
But recently, the government has been consumed by other crises, including the highest inflation rates in four decades, rapidly rising food prices and rising mortgage payments that add up to a deep cost-of-living crisis.
“Retail in England has been in trouble for a long time,” said Anthony Breach, senior analyst at Center for Cities, a think tank. Even before the pandemic, “there was an oversupply of retail space, especially in areas with less successful economies.”
Many high streets needed major transformation if they hoped to survive the shift away from in-store shopping at large national retail chains that dominated them, he added.
There are encouraging signs of progress. Fewer stores closed in Britain last year than the year before, and some empty department stores have found new life as leisure centers with go-karting or planned housing. Foot traffic on high streets across the country was about 5 percent higher in June compared to last year, although it is still below pre-pandemic levels.
“It’s high streets that are being diminished,” said Mark Robinson, chairman of the High Streets Task Force, a body set up by the government. “Also, there are places that will still get worse. But on balance, we can really look at being through the worst of it, and I really don’t think people are talking about the death of the high street anymore.”
High streets across the country face divergent fortunes. Poole improved after the risk was taken by Legal & General Investment Management, which owns about 36 billion pounds (about $43 billion) in homes, retail, offices and other real estate. Other small high streets have benefited from residents staying closer to home to work and socialize.
But many others, especially in larger towns or cities, are still blighted by empty warehouses and shuttered outposts of national brands.
The differences are apparent in Bournemouth, a larger town a few miles east of Poole with a large student population. Economic prosperity varies widely across the region, but the average income in Bournemouth, Poole and their surrounding towns was around 7 per cent below the national average, according to official statistics from 2022.
Three department stores in Bournemouth have closed, and the exit of large retail chains has left several streets with empty storefronts. Two years ago, the city had ambitious plans to fill the vacant space, but they were slow to materialize. The main success was the re-opening of a former Debenhams department store as Bobby’s, which has a beauty salon, cafe and stalls for local businesses.
Four other large sites (two former warehouses and two movie theaters) are in the early stages of renovation, said Paul Kinvig, who manages the city’s business improvement district.
“I am encouraged by the fact that there are plans for everyone, but there is a speed problem,” he said.
Progress is slow in Bournemouth, but in Poole, Kingland Crescent has become a nexus for independent businesses. The overhaul provided a dose of modernization with the arrival of an Instagram-friendly plant shop, a cafe with a grill in the back and a gin bar, among others. And the free rent allowed them to grow quickly.
For the owner, the program was a long-term bet. Providing free rent to entrepreneurs, even those with no formal business experience, was part of its strategy to make its properties more resilient to an ever-changing economy and less dependent on large national retailers, said Matt Sofair, who heads retail research at Legal. & General Investment Management.
“We’re not doing this just to do a nice thing for the people of Poole,” he added. “We also do this because we believe that in the long run all these initiatives will create cash flow.”
Before moving to Kingland Crescent, Mr Wyatt’s furniture restoration business was a joke operation. Sometimes, he painted furniture in his garden and sold the pieces on eBay.
Since opening his shop, he has sold more than a thousand pieces. He specializes in restoring mid-century items, such as a sideboard by the Danish designer Ib Kofod-Larsen and a dressing table by the British design firm Archie Shine. In March, around the time the lease began, Mr. Wyatt doubled the store’s footprint, taking over a vacant space next door in partnership with Jay Blades, star of the BBC series “The Repair Shop.”
Three doors down from Mr. Wyatt’s is Wild Roots, a plant store owned by Hope Dean, 29, who was laid off from her events management job early in the pandemic. A few months later, she secured a space on Kingland Crescent, which is now a soothing haven of greenery. She employs six people, and her company has three branches: the retail store, a plant design service for businesses and plant care services.
“It feels like a proper business now,” Ms Dean said.
A stylish record store that hosts live music nights, a jeweler with pieces delicately carved from titanium and a clothing store that previously only had an online presence have just joined the lineup. They each have to pay rent, but several said they are still getting a good deal.
Changes on Kingland Crescent have flowed into the neighboring shopping center which Legal & General also owns. On the empty upper floors of the mall, the landlord put in a diagnostic center managed by the National Health Service, an adult education center and a co-working space. Market stalls are open several days a week on the ground floor, along with space for free events and services, such as day care, craft fairs and historical exhibits.
But the tenants of Kingland Crescent still face challenges. Their leases are up for renewal in about a year, meaning their futures are uncertain. Foot traffic can be unpredictable, tenants say, and there is little other nightlife, a problem for the bar.
“Poole was our pilot,” said Denizer Ibrahim, who leads the retail strategy at Legal & General. After two years of collecting data, the owner thinks about what worked and can be replicated elsewhere. But it does not expect to offer free rent again.
The strategy, Mr. Ibrahim said, is to end the “cookie-cutter” high streets that were the norm a few years ago, and instead run a space with a diverse mix of global and local companies in retail and other services.
That range of uses for retail spaces “would never have even been talked about if it wasn’t for Kingland,” he said.