IT will be a big moment for Golden Square on Monday when restrictions ease and shops reopen.

But it has been a long road to get to this point as Ian Cox knows only too well.

Golden Square’s director recently talked to us about the challenges of running a shopping centre during a pandemic, the moment the severity of the situation hit home and what he has learnt from permanent store closures.

Discussing the first lockdown he said: “Thinking back the only way I can describe it is like some sort of tornado.

“There was talk of it coming but even so I don’t think anyone was prepared for the impact it would have on society. We made sure we were giving retailers the most up-to-date information possible.

“But then getting information back from them on what their plans were was particularly difficult when you think we’ve got more than 100 retailers here.

“It was also difficult trying to understand the legislation because the goalposts kept changing. But we got through all that and then the next bit was a bit surreal. It was a bit eerie because it was a complete lockdown.

“There were no cafes open for takeaway the way there currently is. So I was coming into work to a completely deserted, completely dark mall.

“I was sitting outside in the old market square at the Alice in Wonderland statue on my own in complete silence. It was a bit like an apocalypse-style movie.

“There was not a single person in sight as I was sat in the middle of the town centre and that in itself was probably the strangest moment for me. That’s when reality hit home that this was huge.”

Since then Ian has described planning ahead as ‘impossible’.

He added: “Whether that be planning for new leases or new retailers or planning for the events we’ve become well known for in the square.

“Even planning for rotas and staffing levels has been difficult. Every week has been different for pretty much 12 months.

“At first I think most organisations couldn’t do right for doing wrong because you’re trying your best to cover all bases.

“Nothing like this had happened before so there wasn’t a checklist and so things get missed. We’re only human.

“So that first lockdown period was really difficult because we didn’t know whether we’d got it right.

Ian Cox

Ian Cox

“The one thing I can say with certainty is how good a job my team have done. We’ve had no outbreaks like other organisations have and therefore haven’t had to deal with the after effects of what that means to running a business on the ground.

“Getting people through these past 12 months as best we can and to keep them as safe and healthy as possible has been everyone’s priority so to say we’ve achieved that so far is something I’m really proud of.

“To get through this unscathed so far is superb.”

However, Ian is under no illusions that Golden Square has come out unscathed in terms of the economic picture. Eleven stores have permanently closed in the centre during the Covid era.

Ian said: “During the past 12 months, turning on the news for most people was to get an update on the situation.

“I turned on the news to see what the state of the retail market was and see who had or hadn’t survived that week. At times it felt like closures were coming thick and fast on a weekly basis.

“But this is no reflection on Warrington. This is the national picture and if I look at the stores that have closed because of Covid, all of them have closed nationally or are part of a national closure plan.”

In fact, Ian reckons the crisis has simply fast-forwarded everything that was going to happen in retail by two or three years.

He added: “My own opinion on the stores that have shut is that the pandemic seems to have accelerated what was happening in retail anyway.

“I think it’s given us the opportunity to re-evaluate what town centres – and from my point of view what shopping centres – are here for.

“Golden Square was built in the 1970s. So many malls were built then that look the same.

“There was a boom in shopping malls and the fact it has lasted this long is probably surprising when you think about it.

“That’s 40 years of a concept that hasn’t really changed. We need to become a destination in our own right that isn’t focused around retail.

“Golden Square also has to be focused around leisure and events. Online shopping is growing and will continue to grow so you can’t just have the retail element.

Ian briefing Golden Square staff

Ian briefing Golden Square staff

“You add to that and you bring into it a reason why people want to come into town centres.”

Ian also challenged the notion that there will ‘soon be nothing left at Golden Square’ – a comment he often sees on social media.

He said: “We’ve had 11 stores close during the Covid outbreak but if you put that into context when we reopen we will have 115 stores, bars, restaurants and cafes open.

“We’ve done a deal on the former Patisserie Valerie unit and pizzeria Dough Dough is about to open. I’ve also got five other units under offer.

“My view is that the current situation has slowed down – not stopped or reversed – the trend of new businesses coming to Warrington.

“The positivity around the town centre will soon pick up momentum again. People can see that there’s investment going on.

“Looking at the plans for the town centre going forward, it’s going to be a struggle and nothing is going to happen overnight but my team is positive and we’re excited now about what this next six months can hopefully bring. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ian’s own plan involves moving ‘at a pace which mirrors the government roadmap’ to bring that sense of vibrancy back to the shopping centre as soon as possible.

He added: “So when we have permission to ramp things up we have already got things in place to do so.

“From April 12, our outside space will basically become Warrington’s biggest outdoor eating and drinking square.

“We will have the tables and chairs out as a huge communal space.

“We’ve got the bars and restaurants and a pop-up bar ready to open and there’s room for at least 250 people to meet safely.

“May 17 is the next benchmark where we’re looking at slowly reintroducing events.

“We’ve got some comedy nights and live music planned and we’ve got a socially safe screening of the Euro football tournament.

“The one thing I’ve instilled into our team is flexibility and being able to adapt quickly as a key to being successful.

“The thing we’ve got in our favour as opposed to the Trafford Centre, Liverpool One or any of the bigger shopper destinations is that we can react a lot quicker than the big organisations.

“We can be nimble on our feet and I do have a little bit more autonomy on the ground to make decisions quickly.

“Whether it’s having to close parts of the centre down to adhere to lockdown rules or reopening and getting events back up and running, that flexibility is key.”