What has changed in Stowmarket over the last year?
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
From new beginnings to sad endings, there have been a number of changes in the historic town of Stowmarket since the Covid pandemic hit — and there are more in the pipeline.
Despite it being a challenging year for many, a number of new businesses have taken the plunge and opened their doors for the first time.
The Café on the Rec, based at the recreational ground, served its first coffees to excited customers at the end of March.
Café coordinators from the Salvation Army, Sandra and Steve Ambrose, said the café will really become a community hub now that coronavirus restrictions have eased further and they have opened indoors.
Meanwhile, a new bakery and deli is also proving to be a hit in the town.
Little Pig Bakery, found in Station Road, opened on May 21, and already people have praised its "fluffy doughnuts" and home-cooked treats.
Another one for foodie fans is the newly opened Biga Napoletana Pizzeria — a small, family-run takeaway.
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Dough-devotee Tom Polnisiak opened his own Italian pizza joint in Bury Road after more than 15 years of hard work running the business from his home.
The business started when his friends tried his pizza and persuaded him it was good enough to sell, so when he lost his job in November 2020 he decided to make food his full-time passion.
What has changed — and how have people come together?
David Blackburn, town clerk at Stowmarket Town Council, said local people have "adapted to a new way of life".
"Many have used the time to think about where they live and how they can contribute to their communities," said Mr Blackburn.
"We have, for example, received more expressions of interest in becoming a town councillor in the past 12 months than during the whole of the previous decade. The desire to look out for each other has been very noticeable with groups such as the Stowmarket and Area Food Bank being a particular focus for help and support.
"But that is not to say that there hasn’t been a collective sigh of relief as restrictions have been relaxed in recent months."
One major change in the town is the recent revamp of The Regal theatre, which was closed for more than a year to undergo a £3.6million refurbishment.
Theatre manager David Marsh said: "This is a landmark project to show our ambitions for the town and it just looks superb, a huge achievement."
Mr Blackburn said the theatre revamp has shown the "need for normality" in Stowmarket, as people rushed back to see their favourite movies.
He said: "Many people have said to us that face to face contact is so much better than the sterility of online meetings. Evidence of this need for normality comes from the reopening of the Regal Theatre in Stowmarket, where people have been really positive about leaving Netflix and Spotify at home and getting out with others to watch a film in this exciting new venue for the town."
Another big change, which has already began taking shape, is the conversion of the former Aldi into the town's first 24-hour gym.
The PureGym looks set to open later this year, and will be kitted out with facilities expected to include weight and exercise machines, a free weights area and an activity area.
What has been lost?
It hasn't all been good news for the town's businesses, with a number forced to close.
Barclays bank announced the closure of its town centre branch last year following a drop in counter transactions in the past 24 months.
East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices (EACH) also decided not to renew its lease on the premises in Ipswich Street — with the doors remaining shut when high streets reopened in April.
Meanwhile, Covid also saw the collapse of Stowmarket-based car upholsterer, Duncan Smith Automotive, which went into liquidation in December owing more than £300,000 to creditors after the pandemic slowed the sale of new cars.
Hope for the future
As soon as one door closes, another one opens — and that's the case in Stowmarket with a number of exciting plans in the pipework.
These include a new wholefoods shop, Bonitas Wholefoods, due to open later this month and Suffolk's biggest ever retail park just off the A14.
Reflecting on a year of change, Mr Blackburn said he is thankful there is "light at the end of the tunnel" as he looks to the future.
"At the moment there appears to be an overwhelming focus on change and a feeling that things will never be the same again," he said.
"However, I tend to agree with Ben Page, the CEO of Ipsos MORI who says the evidence is that attitudes and values remain constant over long periods of time. People are sociable by nature and can’t wait to get back to an unrestricted diet of family gatherings, weekly groups and classes, sports and exercise activities and community events.
"Thankfully, there is now light at the end of the tunnel and I think a renewed optimism and appreciation of the value of the community life within Stowmarket."
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