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To revive a dying high street, a British landlord offered free rent

    For two decades, Steven Wyatt was in a cycle of drug addiction and rehab. In 2006, during a period at a recovery center, he learned how to restore furniture, a skill that led him to an unexpected place: running his own shop in Poole, a coastal town in the South West of England.

    Mr. Wyatt, 46, is one of the few beneficiaries of an unusual experiment in real estate and urban renewal. His shop, Restored Retro, is one of 10 companies that received two years of free rent for an empty storefront in a small shopping street in Poole called Kingland Crescent.

    The offer came from the property’s owner, Legal & General Investment Management, Britain’s largest asset manager, who had struggled to revive a nearly run-down high street next to a shopping centre, in a troubled economy still is recovering from the pandemic.

    “It’s been a huge learning curve for them and for us,” said Mr. Wyatt. “I’ve never had so much responsibility.”

    The rent-free period, which ended in April, not only changed the lives of Mr. Wyatt and several other small business owners, but also transformed the street, which now sees a steady stream of foot traffic in an area many locals avoided. Even the adjacent shopping center goes against the national trend, with more visitors now than in 2019.

    Half of the original 10 businesses that provided space on Kingland Crescent are still there, and those that left were quickly replaced by new local businesses ready to pay rent. There is a sense that momentum is building in Poole’s transformation.

    “Poole is becoming a destination again,” said Mr. Wyatt.

    Poole is just a few miles away from some of the most expensive coastal real estate in the country, but the town center was stuck in a rut. The mall had dark, empty spaces and part of the city’s larger shopping area was caught in the past, with old brands long forgotten in livelier places.

    Kingland Crescent’s upheaval began during pandemic lockdowns as Britons lamented the death of their beloved high streets, which are similar to US high streets. Their survival was a priority for the government, which announced billions in grants to revive them.

    But lately the government has been swallowed up by other crises, including the highest inflation rates in four decades, soaring food prices and skyrocketing mortgage payments, all of which amount to a deep crisis in the cost of living.

    “The retail industry in England has been in trouble for a long time,” said Anthony Breach, senior analyst at the Center for Cities think tank. Even before the pandemic, “there was an oversupply of retail space, especially in places with less successful economies.”

    Many high street stores needed major transformation if they hoped to survive the shift away from in-store shopping at major national retail chains that dominated them, he added.

    There are encouraging signs of progress. Fewer shops closed in Britain last year than the year before, and some vacant department stores have been given new life as go-karting leisure centers or planned housing. Pedestrian traffic on shopping streets nationwide was about 5 percent higher in June than last year, though still below prepandemic levels.

    “There are high streets that have been decimated,” said Mark Robinson, chairman of the High Streets Task Force, a body set up by the government. “Similarly, there are places that will continue to get worse. But on balance, we can really look like we’ve seen the worst, and I really don’t think people are talking about the high street death anymore.

    Shopping districts across the country are facing varying fortunes. Poole has improved after the risk taken by Legal & General Investment Management, which owns about £36bn (about $43bn) worth of homes, shops, offices and other real estate. Other small shopping areas have benefited from residents staying closer to home to work and socialize.

    But many others, especially in larger cities, are still plagued by empty department stores and closed outposts of national brands.

    The differences are evident in Bournemouth, a larger town a few miles east of Poole with a large student population. Economic wealth varies widely across the region, but the median income in Bournemouth, Poole and surrounding towns was about 7 percent below the national average, according to official 2022 statistics.

    Three department stores in Bournemouth have closed and the departure of large chain stores has left empty storefronts in several streets. Two years ago, the city had ambitious plans to fill the vacant space, but they were slow to get going. Its biggest success is the reopening of a former department store in Debenhams as Bobby’s, which has a beauty salon, cafe and stalls for local businesses.

    Four other large sites (two former department stores and two movie theaters) are in the early stages of redevelopment, said Paul Kinvig, who manages the city’s business improvement district.

    “I’m encouraged by the fact that there are plans for all of them, but there is a problem with the pace,” he said.

    Progress in Bournemouth is slow, but in Poole, Kingland Crescent has become a hub for independent businesses. The renovation provided a dose of modernization, including the arrival of an Instagram-friendly plant shop, a coffee shop with a distillery in the back and a gin bar. And thanks to the free rent, they were able to grow quickly.

    For the landlord, the program was a long-term gamble. Providing free rentals to entrepreneurs, even those with no formal business experience, is part of its strategy to make its properties more resilient to an ever-changing economy and less dependent on major national retailers, said Matt Soffair, who leads retail research at Legal. & General Investment Management.

    “We’re not just doing this to do something nice for the people of Poole,” he added. “We’re also doing this because we believe all of these initiatives will create cash flow in the long run.”

    Before moving to Kingland Crescent, Mr. Wyatt a small business. Sometimes he painted furniture in his garden and sold the pieces on eBay.

    Since opening his shop, he has sold more than a thousand pieces. He specializes in restoring mid-century items such as a dresser by Danish designer Ib Kofod-Larsen and a dressing table by British design agency Archie Shine. In March, around the time rent payments started, Mr Wyatt doubled the shop’s footprint by taking over a vacant space next door in partnership with Jay Blades, star of the BBC series “The Repair Shop”.

    Three doors down from Mr. Wyatt is Wild Roots, a plant shop owned by 29-year-old Hope Dean, who was laid off from her event manager job at the start of the pandemic. A few months later, she secured a spot on Kingland Crescent, which is now a restful green oasis. She employs six people and her business has three branches: the store, a corporate design agency, and a plant care service.

    “It feels like a real business now,” Ms. Dean said.

    A sleek record store that hosts live music nights, a jewelry store with pieces delicately carved from titanium, and a previously online-only clothing store have recently joined the lineup. They all have to pay rent, but several said they still got a good deal.

    Changes on Kingland Crescent have been made to the adjacent mall which is also owned by Legal & General. On the mall’s desolate upper floors, the landlord had a National Health Service diagnostic center, an adult education center and a coworking space set up. Market stalls are open several days a week on the ground floor, as well as an area for free events and services, such as childcare, craft fairs and historical exhibitions.

    But Kingland Crescent’s tenants still face challenges. Their leases will be renewed in about a year, meaning their future is uncertain. Pedestrian traffic can be unpredictable, tenants say, and there’s little other nightlife, a problem for the bar.

    “Poole was our pilot,” says Denizer Ibrahim, who leads retail strategy at Legal & General. After collecting data for two years, the landlord thinks about what worked and can be replicated elsewhere. But it doesn’t expect to offer free rentals again.

    The strategy, Mr Ibrahim said, is to end the cookie-cutter high street shops that were the norm a few years ago, and instead put together a space with a diverse mix of international and local businesses in the retail and other services.

    That retail space use range “would never have been talked about if it weren’t for Kingland,” he said.