Childhood memories and homegrown passion drives the two people transforming our town centre. Things are changing, but Middlesbrough is in safe hands.
A town centre isn’t just a collection of buildings, roads and people.
It’s a living, breathing entity – it’s jobs, it’s businesses, shops, restaurants, bars and homes.
It’s a community, a feeling, a vibe, a place.
Michelle McPhee, the strategic town centre manager in Middlesbrough, and Tom Rhind, the town centre co-ordinator, are responsible for the direction of ours.
And in Middlesbrough, there are big plans.
“We need to understand the national picture,” said Michelle.
“High streets in every town and city across the UK are changing – especially the retail offer.
“The big department stores are closing everywhere. You have big chains like Starbucks which are changing how they operate and are focusing on out of town drive-thrus, for example.”
Tom agrees: “The demise of Debenhams, Topshop, places like that – there’s been pressure on them for a long time, and we’ve managed to keep hold of them in Middlesbrough longer than most towns and a lot of cities.
“When people talk about shops closing, people believe it’s only happening in their town. It’s not, it’s everywhere.
“But the Covid pandemic has accelerated everything.”
Changing retail trends and consumer behaviour means town centres have to change too – and it’s not just about shops.
“Obviously, internet shopping like Amazon has changed the way people shop,” Michelle continued.
“But different age groups want different things. Generation X, those who are 25 and below, they do still want town centres. They are more socially conscious, and what they want from them is different. They want more independent stores.
“From our point of view, we want to create an environment where people want to visit.”
So while the lockdowns we’ve seen in the past 18 months have accelerated the decline of retail, it’s also accelerated ambitions that have been years in the making.
Instead of looking for large, national chains to save the high street, Michelle and Tom know what needs to happen in Middlesbrough. Because it’s what needs to happen everywhere.
We need more people living, working and socialising in the town centre.
The demand for artisan, independent businesses has been proven on Baker and Bedford Street, with events like Orange Pip market – which attract people from across Teesside and beyond – proves “there’s a real desire from people for us to have that mix”.
“I remember the first Orange Pip, and worrying whether it would be busy or not,” said Tom.
“But look how successful it is and how popular it’s become among so many people. This is just one example which shows that if the right offer is made available, there is real demand for it in Middlesbrough and the surrounding area.”
Middlesbrough Council recently bought Captain Cook Square and the House of Fraser building, with the intention of bringing more leisure into the town.
Housing is being planned in St Hilda’s, Gresham and other town centre sites – while office developments at Centre Square, Albert North and the Boho zone continue to grow.
“For Middlesbrough to compete, it has to be unique,” continued Michelle.
Michelle is originally from Coulby Newham, has been the town centre manager since 2017, and has worked at Middlesbrough Council for 21 years.
Tom has worked for the council since 2006, and is from Linthorpe.
For both of them, ensuring Middlesbrough town centre grows and succeeds isn’t just a job – it’s a vocation.
“I couldn’t do this job anywhere else, I’m passionate about it,” said Michelle. “I care, I want to see us do well and I want to see us thrive.
“The town centre is a massive part of my life. I remember my nana bringing me into town when I was a kid, eating at Upper Crust café, shopping at Tammy Girl and Geordie Jeans. It’s more than a job.”
Tom agrees: “We’re lucky to do what we do. We’re involved professionally, obviously, but we’re involved personally as well. I’m privileged, to tell you the truth – I work here and I come here in my free time, I think I understand the place, and what makes it tick.”
We are words by Mike Brown
We are pictures by Dave Charnley