In Good Company… with The Big Onion. We ask business across Liverpool City Region what makes a ‘good’ business and how we can help our communities thrive?
Bootle’s Big Onion helps create new jobs and entrepreneurs in the borough, and offers employment advice as well as delivering a range of training and community activities. Its independent retail arcade in Bootle Strand Shopping Centre provides space to 20 local independent businesses… offering everything from a local café and wellbeing barber shop to alternative therapies, artist space, bespoke fashion and vintage comics and collectables.
The organisation behind it, Merseyside Expanding Horizons, has worked to support people in making lasting positive changes since 1999. “Clarity of focus, sound management systems, a brilliant staff and volunteer team and keeping the needs and aspirations of our clients at our core,” have been key to its growth and impact says Nicola. “Over that 21 year history we’ve faced many challenges as an organisation – it’s tested our resolve as a creative third sector organisation,” Nicola adds. “But those core elements mean we’ve been able to grow and have a positive impact on an increasing number of people.”
Big Onion wraps its service in three layers: an independent retail space, employability hub and community space. Traders pay a weekly fee for a space, and get wrap-around business support alongside their shop space. The variety on offer generates a creative atmosphere, with services and facilities for local residents.
But of course, in the unpredictable times of 2020 and 2021, nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it may once have seemed. “The Covid-19 pandemic came along just as we were planning to launch the Big Onion enterprise, employment and community hub in Bootle Strand,” says Nicola. “Taking on the space that was the old Perfect Home retail unit, which spans some 6,000 square feet of commercial space, we planned to open to the public in the summer of 2020. Our units and business guidance are designed to support 20 new and fledgling local entrepreneurs. We also support local people who’re looking to get back into work via our comprehensive employment support programmes, and provide accessible space to community groups, individuals and training agencies to deliver social, recreational and educational activities for local people,” Nicola says.
“This area’s greatest asset is its people and the Big Onion seeks to create an environment where people can thrive. Whilst we can’t ignore the changing shopping habits of people and the acceleration of business done on the internet, the opportunity to build a stronger, more diverse and creative independent retail sector is a challenge we are committed to. There is so much talent out there.
“Many of the big household names have put ‘profit before people’ and moved off the high street – often leaving large commercial units empty. A number of factors, including high rents, means they become un-lettable.
“Over the next three years Merseyside Expanding Horizons plans to develop four further Big Onion spaces across Liverpool City Region,” says Nicola. “These hubs will span over 30,000 square feet of high street retail space and housing approximately 110 local independent traders. They’ll deliver bespoke employment, skills and community development support to over 14,000 people per year – generating more than £3.5m in the local economy. We really are seeking to help redesign our high streets and encourage people to shop local,” adds Nicola.
“The pandemic and subsequent local and national lockdowns did impact on our planning and delivery targets – but they didn’t affect our focus on designing and delivering such an innovative space. We were also able to engage – albeit in a different way, with loads of Zoom and Teams meetings – with those who wanted to be involved in the project. Staying focused and committed to our goals was important, because we knew that we wanted to be part of the recovery and help people to get back on their feet.”
That focus and commitment has paid off, playing a vital role in Bootle’s strong sense of community identity. Nicola says: “In the weeks and months since the reopening of ‘non-essential retail’, the Big Onion Hub is brimming with activity and delivering what we set out to achieve. We’ve still got a long way to go to reach perfection,” Nicola admits, “but we are on the right pathway and working with some amazing people and businesses.”
You’ll find The Big Onion and its community of traders in Bootle Strand Shopping Centre and you can read more about its work at thebigonion.co.uk.
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Rob Bremner is a British documentary and editorial photographer, studying at Wallasey College of Art and the School of Documentary Photography at Newport.
He spent summer 2021 capturing good businesses across Liverpool City Region, for the Good Business Festival’s #InGoodCompany series.
Follow Rob Bremner on instagram.
The Good Business Festival is passionately non-exclusive. It’s not about what you do or who you know. It’s not about agreeing on everything all of the time. It’s about everyone working towards a better world – no matter where you’re starting from.