Karen Potter has been an estate agent in Southport for 40 years and believes the town’s history and elegance, combined with a renewed entrepreneurial spirit, offer the key to its growth. Tony McDonough reports
A year ago Karen Potter joined the board of Southport Business Improvement District (BID) because she “wanted to do more for the town that I love”.
“I have lived in Southport from the age of five,” said Karen, founder of Karen Potter The Estate Agent. “This is such a beautiful place and, despite the economic challenges we face, I am very optimistic for its future.”
Karen last spoke to LBN in March 2021 at the height of the COVID pandemic. She said then it was important for Southport to diversify its business base and attract more young people into the town. And in the past year she has seen evidence that this is happening.
“I have found over the past 12 months that more entrepreneurs are setting up businesses in the town, particularly in sectors such as digital,” she explained.
“That has to be a good sign of change and the investment into broadband infrastructure from the city region can only help to accelerate that.
“Southport has a very strong reputation in the visitor economy, in areas such as hospitality and leisure. We, of course, need to nurture that and build on it. Though we also need to encourage growth in other sectors to future-proof our economy and we are seeing that.”
The residential property market always provides a good barometer for assessing the health of a local economy. Karen is a keen collector of data. A Fellow of the National Association of Estate Agents, she is regularly consulted by the Bank of England.
She said her team of 12 has had a pretty busy year. She added: “When the pandemic came to an end we saw what I described as an explosion in the local market. People were eager to get back to normal but, due to overwhelming demand and limited supply, we dealt with offers for properties up to £70,000 above asking price.
“A year ago some economists were predicting a slowdown in the housing market as the cost of living crisis really started to bite. They were anticipating a correction in the market – but that is not what has happened.
“Since the start of the year we have had two record months.. And we think this will continue into 2024 as long as Sellers remain realistic about their asking prices.”
For many years Southport has been partly seen as a retirement town. A key measure of change would be a rise in the number of first-time buyers. But that change takes time.
According to Karen, the months after the pandemic saw around 25% of sales conducted by first time buyers but in the latter part of this year that has slipped back to 20%.
While looking to the future, Karen also has an eye on the past. She is a keen reader of local history and believes some of Southport’s more unique characteristics are a major selling point as it looks to grow.
She said: “If you walk up the high street of many small towns in this country it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. There is a sameyness about them. Southport isn’t like that at all.
“Lord Street is the jewel in the crown. In an effort to impress, a number of banks built these beautiful buildings and that has left us with a fantastic legacy. When the Hesketh family donated land for the town centre they insisted the streets be lined with trees.”
Karen points out the town’s admirers have come from far and wide. She cites the story of Prince Louis Napoleon, later Emperor Napoleon III, who lived in exile in Southport in 1838.
So the story goes, the young prince was so inspired by the “grandeur” of Lord Street that he ordered Baron Haussmann to model the reconstruction of Paris on it.
Sefton Council is using money from the Town Deal fund to launch a project called Les Transformations de Southport. This is looking at interconnectivity across the town centre, from improved pedestrian and cycling routes to the creation of new public spaces.”
And the work of the BID has sought to build on, and enhance the aesthetics, architectural beauty and elegance of the town centre.
“Karen added: “Rachel and Dan (BID CEO Rachel Fitzgerald and chair Dan Taylor) have an incredible passion for the work they do to transform Southport.
“If it wasn’t for the BID and the partnerships it’s formed, the town centre wouldn’t look anything like it does now, an elegant Victorian sea-side town with breathtaking illumination in the winter and beautiful floral displays in the summer.
“I think Sefton Council is committed to the town but, like any council, it has limited funds. That extra raised through the BID levy-payers makes all the difference.
“As a board we meet six times a year and discuss how that levy is best spent to enhance the town centre. And we are always looking at different ways we can bring businesses together and raise awareness of the many exciting things happening here.
“We need the BID. It is a stepping stone between the businesses and the council. Without the BID that will go. It’s also about attracting town centre investment and new residents to our town.
“The majority of our board members are businesses in the town and they are passionate about promoting Southport and making sure it is looked after, developed and sees its economy diversified. Without that, I don’t know what would happen.”