Why Croydon needs a visitor centre, and how it could pay for itself

By - Monday 10th September, 2018

A luxury service our town can’t afford? Not at all, says Charles Barber

Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

If you happened to venture down the covered section of St George’s Walk on Saturday 25th August, you may have noticed a man sitting at a table with another chair opposite him. A sign on his table claimed that it was the Croydon Visitor Centre, and if you were rash enough to catch his eye, he was liable to ask you if you wanted to sit down and have a chat about Croydon. Why, you may ask, would anyone sit at a table in a windswept, almost deserted and derelict part of Croydon, pretending to be the Croydon Visitor Centre?

To some extent it was an ironic comment on how Croydon and many other places in the UK are currently changing and developing. Close to impressive new and old council buildings, and the wonderful Croydon Central Library, a shopping arcade with empty, abandoned flower beds has been largely ignored and allowed to stagnate. True, a few brave businesses have started up there recently, and perhaps in the next year or so, with the amount of new construction that will be taking place in the area, there might be a slightly higher footfall down this arcade to help such businesses survive. Yet the main reason that I sat there for most of the day was because I believe that Croydon needs and deserves a visitor centre and that such a space, if run as a community business, could be self sustaining.

If Greenwich can manage an online visitor website, why can’t Croydon?

Croydon, of course, had such a service from 2008-2015, funded not by Croydon Council as is commonly believed, but by Croydon Business Improvement District, which acts in the interest of local business and is funded by a levy on them. Croydon BID closed the centre in May 2015. To be successful, however, a new centre would have to expand the remit of similar centres. Croydon has one of the highest transient populations in the country, and though the diversity of this population gives it so much of its vibrancy and variety, the town can sometimes be a difficult place for newcomers to get to grips with. So whether the newcomer is from a different part of London, a different part of the country, from Europe or from the rest of the world, an online welcome pack would be a very useful, cheap and sensible thing to provide. And an online visitor centre should offer so much more.

We need a monthly diary of events happening in Croydon, an online marketplace in which Croydon businesses could pay to advertise and a forum for debate on how best Croydon should develop and present itself to the world. If Greenwich can manage an online visitor website, why can’t we?

Pop-up Croydon Visitor Centre in St George’s Walk, Saturday 25th August.
Photo by Bernadette Fallon, used with permission.

Useful as such a site might be, it should be complemented by a physical presence somewhere in the centre of Croydon. As well as a base to help tourists and promote tourism and business investment in Croydon, this should also be a community hub that provides a useful service to those who live here. It should have a café/bar, a shop and a meeting room/performance area and be a place where Croydonians and visitors will feel sure of a warm welcome.

Matthews Yard in the centre of Croydon is currently providing some of the community hub element of this. But if the council has its way, the large building in which Matthews Yard sits will be redeveloped to provide more flats with less room for community space. At a time when the centre of Croydon is becoming ever more crowded, providing enough space for community use is more and more important.

In such uncertain political and economic times, the council will doubtless try to tell us that a visitor centre is a luxury we can’t afford. Yet if it can be self-financing, and provide a service for tourists, companies and residents, and help promote and improve the image of Croydon, I do not see why it shouldn’t have council support.

We would look to gain initial funding from a share launch

There are a number of different business models, which could enable the visitor centre to be financially self-sustaining. The Greenwich model gains much of its finance with a variety of partnerships with different businesses, who in return for a range of varying annual fees, get certain services and rewards as well as the kudos of showing that they’re investing in the economic and cultural development of Greenwich. The money that Greenwich earns enables it to maintain and develop its website, and have a physical tourist information centre providing advice and information as well as selling maps, guides and other related Greenwich products. Such a model has much to recommend it, but I think Croydon could adapt it so that the local people as well as businesses have a greater stake and say in how the visitor centre develops.

My ideal model would be to gain initial funding from a share launch, in which local businesses would be allowed 32%, local individuals 32% and the Council 32%. This would leave 4% that could be allocated to friends of Croydon from around the world who already have close links or are interested in having closer links with Croydon.

A centre like this would need entrepreneurially minded managers

But however the business model is developed, it would need a board of committed Croydonians, including a majority with business skills and experience to help set it up and keep it on the right track, and two or three entrepreneurial managers to help run the different elements of the visitor centre. It may be possible for much of the tourist information and the shop to be largely run by volunteers. Needless to say, if Croydon could find a benefactor who would provide premises very cheaply or even for free, this could drastically lower the start-up and running costs.

Having come here three-and-a-half years ago, I myself still feel a bit like a visitor to Croydon, though many friendly Croydonians have made me feel at home here. This is partly because there are so many interesting places in Croydon that I still haven’t got around to visiting. Of course Croydon, unlike Greenwich, doesn’t have such obvious attractions as the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark, the Naval Colleges and the Thames. Yet Croydon – for all of its problems – is far more interesting and attractive than most outsiders realise.

We have a responsibility to promote and encourage what is good about Croydon

It has many creative people doing many exciting things, setting up art galleries and bringing art literally onto the streets, playing a wide variety of music in different venues, holding theatre and comedy festivals, and developing and creating new gardens in many of Croydon’s parks and open spaces. It also has a fascinating history and architecture and excellent transport links to Gatwick Airport and the centre of London. It will soon also have a refurbished Fairfield Halls, heart of the new Cultural Quarter, which will hopefully attract many popular musical acts to play in its newly glamorous auditorium.

Yet Croydon still has a reputation and image problem. Undoubtedly it has many of the problems that many other London boroughs also have, and both communities and the council have a responsibility to tackle these. But don’t we also have a responsibility to promote and encourage what is good about Croydon, to be hospitable to newcomers, to help residents, to encourage inward investment and start-ups in Croydon and support local businesses? I believe a Croydon Visitor Centre could do all of these things and am looking for others willing to spend a bit of time and effort to make this vision a reality.

If you would like to be involved, please either leave a comment after this article or .

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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  • Alan Reynolds

    Why did the Croydon BID stop its funding?