O come all ye traders!

Many small town centres are sadly deserted. The retail trade there is dying. But the town of Wittlich in Rhineland-Palatinate, western Germany, is fighting back.

Text: Lisa Goldmann
Photo: Evelyn Dragan

A scene typical of many town centres. Karin Schade is doing something about it
Room for ideas: a vacant shop in Wittlich

Katrin Schade has a plan and every day when she takes a stroll from her office to the centre of Wittlich, she is reminded of it. She walks down Schloßstrasse past a row of derelict houses with boarded-up windows plastered with posters advertising events long past, then left into Burgstraße, where the old town begins. The first building on the right is a vacant shop, the first on the left – another vacant shop. “But that one is already let, a delicatessen will be opening there soon,” says Schade, with a touch of pride, and rightly so, because it is all due to her.

In the future delicatessen, which used to be a hairdresser’s, Gerd Bamberger is thinking about the jobs he still has to do before the shop opens. “I have spent a good 200 hours getting the place renovated,” he says. Soon there will be shelves here with flasks of spirits, oils and vinegar.

Bamberger’s deli is part of the “Alwin” project launched nearly two years ago by Katrin Schade, who works for the local council. Alwin stands for Aktives Leerstandsmanagement-Wittlicher Innenstadt, which translates roughly as “active management of vacancies in Wittlich town centre”. The project links people who would like to open a shop with the owners of vacant retail spaces. The new tenants assume some or all of the costs of renovation and in return pay no rent at all for the first six months, and a reduced rent for the next six. Full rent is only payable after a year. The finer points are left to the contracting parties. The town council, the Wittlich marketing association, the local savings bank and several landlords are all involved in the project. They have a common objective: they want to boost the retail trade.

Like many other small towns, Wittlich in western Germany has a problem: people are deserting the centre. Shops have been closing since the 1990s and hardly any new ones have been opening. “It’s largely due to demographic change and digitalisation,” says Tine Fuchs, the head of urban development at the Deutscher Industrie- und Handelskammertag, the association of German chambers of industry and commerce. E-commerce has particularly hit the book and electrical trade, and sellers of games and sports equipment. Supermarkets and shopping malls on the edge of town offer a bigger selection, more free parking, and lower prices. Wittlich’s retail park on the outskirts features big stores such as Real, Aldi and Lidl. A mile out of the town centre the entrepreneurial Bungert family has opened a department store. New housing developments are spreading. People want room to live in and green spaces to enjoy.

Wittlich, with its 19,700 inhabitants, is actually doing pretty well. Big companies such as the food firm Dr Oetker and the tyre and rubber company Goodyear have set up plants there. There are 17,500 jobs and commuters pour in off the autobahn from the south and east.

But hardly anyone wanted to move into the town entre: 40 of the 225 shops there were empty, that’s 18%. The chamber of commerce in nearby Trier describes that level as “critical”, creating a vicious circle where fewer people means fewer shops, means fewer people – and so on.

But a counter-flow is gradually emerging, at least in some regions. Town planners and sociologists talk of re-urbanisation. People want to move back into town centres, mainly because the distances are shorter. They want to live, work and shop without having to get in the car.

It takes ideas to revive the centre of Wittlich , ...
... Gerd Bamberger’s deli is one ...

The town revives

It is a good incentive for Wittlich to try to make its centre more attractive. Since 2011 there has been an ambitious development plan. Owners who renovate their buildings get a subsidy for 25% of the cost, up to €80,000 (£72,000). Two-thirds of the money comes from the central government and the regional government of Rhineland-Palatinate, and the town makes up the rest. In recent years €30 million has been invested in the town centre. Some buildings were pulled down and new ones were built. A small river, the Lieser, passes the old town to the west. Along its bank now stand 29 apartments fully accessible for the disabled and all let out. The river bank itself is also being given a facelift. Where there used to be canal walls, there are now broad steps down to the water.

Katrin Schade, 30, moved to Wittlich in 2015. Then, the market square was deserted. Now, locals and tourists on cycling trips sit outside the brasserie that has moved into the renovated old post office. The new park benches are also occupied.

The mixture of rundown and renovated old buildings, of 1960s charm and modern construction is not always harmonious, but at least life is returning to the town centre. Before the subsidy programme there were 600 people living there, now there are nearly a thousand.

Retailers benefit from a town centre with attractive public spaces. But trade was playing a little hard to get, which is why Alwin was launched. Vacancies have now fallen to 10.7%.

To persuade landlords, Schade points to Leipzig, one of the first cities to defy the death of the high street with its “house guardians” model. In 2004, Leipzig began making innovative use of empty old buildings, for example as workshops and artists’ studios. The “guardians” pay no rent but they do take charge of maintenance and refurbishment, to prevent the building from falling into further disrepair. Some of these pioneers have now rented the buildings on a regular basis or even bought them. Since 2010, the Leipzig HausHalten association has also run a guardian project for shops, which has brought 20 ground-floor properties back to life.

The idea has been copied all over Germany. Sometimes the main focus is on the retail trade, as in Wittlich, and sometimes it is on artistic and social projects. The basic idea is always that a busy building enhances the whole district, whereas an empty one has the opposite effect.

Yet many landlords in Wittlich find it hard to come to terms with the fall in rents. They are a bit spoiled, because until 1999 Wittlich was a garrison town for the French army. In its heyday 3,700 soldiers were based here, and the town flourished. Owners often do not want to spend money on renovations, because it is not worth investing if there are no tenants. To overcome this reluctance, the town hands out €250 vouchers for consultations with architects.

... Helga Teusch’s florist shop is another ...
... but there is still plenty of room for more

Strong lead

One man who was convinced by Katrin Schade is Christoph Kunsmann, a tax accountant from Wiesbaden. His grandfather bought his house in 1928. It has five apartments and a shop on the ground floor that had been standing empty for three years. Kunsmann was among those who had to realise that his property was no longer worth as much as it had been in the 1990s. “That is something you just cannot imagine when you come from a big city,” he says. For a long time he did nothing about it. Then, motivated by the grants on offer, he had the apartments refurbished. Now, they are all let. Thanks to the Alwin project he has also found a solution for the empty shop. A model railway store will soon be moving in. “Without Alwin probably nothing would have happened in my shop for another three years,” says Kunsmann.

So far it has mostly been established traders who have used the opportunities offered in Wittlich. Gerd Bamberger, for example, runs another deli in the former abbey at Machern, 13 kilometres away. With the help of Alwin, fashion outlets can test new ideas for a couple of weeks at a time. Soon a pizza chain will be opening a branch in Wittlich. “We need the established firms, too,” says Schade. But she would like to help start-ups with business ideas.

Christian Baeger has made a beginning. The 25-year-old plans to open a cigar bar on Paris Square in October. It only a few months since he moved from Trier to Wittlich because of the lower rents. Now he and his fiancée live in a new housing development a 15-minute walk from his shop. He has long dreamed of setting up a place where you can buy cigars and sit and smoke them in comfort. He never thought that he would get there so quickly. He is financing it through Germany’s reconstruction loan corporation, which advises the savings bank in Wittlich.

Baeger believes that anyone who wants to make a go of business in the centre of Wittlich has to have something special to offer, something that people are willing to make a special journey for. His lounge will be the only cigar bar within 50 kilometres.

Proof that such concepts can work is provided by the Whiskyburg drinks shop, which manages without grants, offers a large, unusual selection and attracts buyers to Wittlich. It remains to be seen how many specialist stores the town can accommodate. “Hybrids can also work,” says Katrin Schade. For example, Café und Ambiente (café and ambience) in Burgstraße also sells the chairs their customers sit on.

Schade is hoping that younger people will also hit the right degree of digitalisation. “An online shop is worthwhile for a few people,” she says, “but they need internet presence, with a website and social media. They have to provide information about special offers and upload photos.” The basics. After all, time does not stand still, not even in Wittlich.