CHESTER city centre had more business openings than closures in 2020 – in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.

The city's retail scene is also taking on a new look, with more independent retailers, venues and eateries taking the place of chain stores and restaurants.

While the city was not immune from the devastating economic effects of the ongoing pandemic – which even now sees all non-essential retailers forced to keep their doors closed during lockdown – Chester BID has revealed how the high street is changing.

The business improvement district has now launched an 'Independent Business Guide' in response to the dramatic change in the city’s retail and hospitality sector – and in their continued battle to save the high street during and post-pandemic.

Chester and District Standard: Pictura with Steve and Kate Riley, plus Lucy and Max the dogsPictura with Steve and Kate Riley, plus Lucy and Max the dogs

Places which closed their doors for good in Chester in 2020 included Las Iguanas, Laura Ashley, Moulton Brown, GAME and Edinburgh Woollen Mill.

But although the city centre saw many business closures during the coronavirus crisis, mostly in the retail sector, these have been just as steadily replaced by new businesses opening.

The city is seeing a dynamic shift in direction – more than three-quarters of new businesses (76 per cent) are independently owned, whilst nearly 80 per cent of the closures (78 per cent) came from national chains or global brands.

Chester and District Standard: Carl Critchlow, Chester BID manager.Carl Critchlow, Chester BID manager.

Carl Critchlow, BID manager, said: "The Covid landscape has been challenging to say the least and we have had moments of complete disheartenment as we watched some of the city’s much loved businesses close, with job losses and uncertainty for many.

"Retailers, like Laura Ashley and Molton Brown, had been a key part of our city centre offering for decades and they are much missed.

"When the high street started to open again from July, we were buoyed up by the picture it began to build. We consistently started to see national chains be replaced by independently owned businesses.

Chester and District Standard: Tpel Paper and Press in Rufus Court.Tpel Paper and Press in Rufus Court.

"Chester has always been renowned for great boutiques, galleries and restaurants on the high street and it is this that drives much of the footfall to the city from across the region – we are a city that is visited for the experience of the city itself.

"It was important for us as a BID to encourage this growth, which is why we have created the guide to starting an independent business - a way to address all the questions that may crop up in starting a new business specifically in Chester city centre.

"We are witnessing an important and positive step in the city’s identity and resurgence from this crisis.

"Our Christmas footfall and spend was better than we could have expected considering the circumstances of the year and we saw shoppers keener than ever before to support the high street and especially independent small and local businesses."

Chester and District Standard: The owners of Shrub.The owners of Shrub.

Calum Adams, co-founder of Shrub, a vegan restaurant that opened on Eastgate Row in August, said: "Chester was an obvious place for us to invest.

"Over the last few years, we’ve felt the city moving away from the mainstream retail and restaurant offerings. The independent food and beverage sector as it stands now is one of the most impressive in the country."

Chester and District Standard: Nicholas Friar at Koji.Nicholas Friar at Koji.

Nicholas Friar, owner of Hypha restaurant, opened Koji next door to his restaurant – a fermentation lab, workspace and store where some of the restaurant’s ingredients are created.

He said: "Our city centre restaurant scene is getting noticed. It’s interesting and diverse - the obvious result of independent owners with individual passions. It’s brilliant to see this mini-boom shine through the devastating effects of the pandemic."

Chester and District Standard: Katrina Kerr, Chester BID chair.Katrina Kerr, Chester BID chair.

Katrina Kerr, chair of Chester BID, said: "I believe Chester’s independents will become the driving force for our city centre.

"Businesses have needed to be nimble and quick to react to ever-changing environments but also be passionate about what they do in order to have a chance of success – we’ve been amazed by the strong spirit and ‘can-do’ attitude in our city centre businesses.

"It has been remarkable to see how great restrictions have propelled this transformation of our city centre’s personality – and important for us to recognise the positive outcomes off the back of what has been a devastating year for many.

"We are witnessing a strong growth of interest in future investment in the city from independents – and importantly we’re also seeing innovation in the way that the traditional retail lease works."

Chester and District Standard: Brigette Watkinson, mixed media artist and Mike Garratt, PACH.Brigette Watkinson, mixed media artist and Mike Garratt, PACH.

The Chester Pop-Up shop in the Grosvenor shopping centre launched in November, where businesses can take the shop on from between one to six weeks, paying a flat weekly rate which includes fit-out, bills and rates.

Chris Nutter, at commercial property agency Barker Proudlove, creators of the Chester Pop-Up shop, said: "It’s become a necessity in this ever-changing retail environment to offer something a little bit different.

"We care about giving small businesses a chance to try a city centre retail position without long leases, rates and bills. The financial outlay is manageable and transparent from the outset and they have the benefit of flexibility – so they can take the space for as little as a week.’

Chester and District Standard: Giacomo Guido, Calum, Natasha and Sammy from Shrub, Faye from Ryleys On The Row, Mike Garratt, PACH. Front - Emily Ghazarian, Chester BID.Giacomo Guido, Calum, Natasha and Sammy from Shrub, Faye from Ryleys On The Row, Mike Garratt, PACH. Front - Emily Ghazarian, Chester BID.