WOKINGHAM’S regeneration woes are continuing with the departure of a popular town centre wine bar.
On Tuesday, The Grape Escape closed its doors for the final time, saying that the dramatic decline in footfall meant “we just couldn’t stay open another day”.
The store, which paired cheeses with wines, placed a statement on its Facebook page letting people know about the sudden closure.
“It is with a very heavy heart I send this post as of today The Grape Escape has closed for good.
“With the massive decline of footfall to Wokingham we just couldn’t stay open another day.
“Thank you to all our fantastic lovely customers we will miss you we have loved serving you all.
“Sorry if you have booked a table with us.”
The retailer’s demise met with an outpouring of grief and frustration on our Facebook page with residents accusing the council of destroying the town and pushing out independents.
And on Sunday The Gig House will close, bringing to end Wetherspoon’s reign in the town centre.
The bar, in Erftstadt Court, was popular for its value-for-money meal deals, cheap coffee and real ales.
Wetherspoon had originally planned to move out in September this year, but the date has been brought forward.
The Wokingham Paper understands that a new operator for the venue has been found, but it is not yet known who it is, with rumours circulating that it could be a pizza parlour. In Reading, when Wetherspoon closed The Monk’s Retreat pub, it was taken on by Stonegate.
These are the latest stores to close in the town centre. In recent months, shoe shop Cara, clothes retailer Marks & Spencer and several small convenience stores have all put up their shutters for good. Fame dancewear has also gone, replaced with a nail bar.
News is “appalling”
Emmbrook Liberal Democrat councillor Imogen Shepherd-DuBey said that the news was “appalling”.
“Wokingham needs small independent traders, such as the Grape Escape to give Wokingham its unique character,” she said. “We do not need a clone town full of chain stores, but if we don’t do enough to support the existing smaller businesses, that is what will end up with.”
She also called on the council to grant hardship relief from business rates for affected businesses and to promote it.
“I urge the ruling group to listen to the facts and act, rather than presuming that they know better,” she added.
Loss of Grape Escape is a ‘big blow’
New Labour councillor for Norreys, Cllr Rachel Burgess, was also critical of the council, saying that the council’s lead member for regeneration, Cllr Philip Mirfin, had not arranged a meeting with her over the issue, despite promising to do so at the full council meeting on May 24.
“The loss of the Grape Escape is another big blow to the town and is a direct result of the town centre regeneration works, the latest in a line of retail closures in Wokingham.
“It’s clear the Council should be doing much more to encourage people to shop locally.
“Wokingham businesses need support at this crucial time for our town centre.”
Cllr Burgess also called on the council to introduce free parking and free shuttle buses from local areas to the town centre in a bid to increase footfall.
She said: “Some businesses have seen their takings plummet as people go to Bracknell or Reading instead to avoid the chaos of the town centre – have the Council and John Redwood lobbied Treasury for reduced business rates to support local retailers during the period of the works?
“I requested Cllr Mirfin meet with me and local residents to discuss the town centre regeneration – I still have not heard from him.”
Probably not linked
But Cllr Mirfin said that the closure of The Grape Escape might not be linked to the regeneration works.
“It’s always sad to see a business close,” he said. “It’s a pity they are blaming the regeneration for something that might not be caused by the regeneration.
“Nearby cafe Brown Bag is doing very well, the area where Tesco was has been very busy at times.”
He also said that The Grape Escape was part of the Business Association and had the opportunity to take part in marketing activities, but didn’t do so to the fullest.
He added: “The date I’ve been given for completion of Market Place is July 28 and I expect to hold them [Balfour Beatty] to that. Peach Place will open at the end of November.”
Rate reduction scheme update
And to add to the retailers’ woes, the council has denied offering a rate reduction scheme to retailers.
Last month, some businesses in the town centre said that Wokingham Borough Council had told them they agreed to reduce the business rates, but in a statement, the council said that the initial scheme hasn’t changed, saying that businesses needed to apply with proof that takings had been down to be considered.
Cllr Julian McGhee-Sumner, executive member for finance for Wokingham Borough Council, said: “A rate reduction hasn’t been agreed for all businesses in the Town Centre.
“We have a discretionary rate relief scheme that eligible businesses can apply for individually as long as they can provide financial evidence.
“Some businesses have already applied and been successful.”