As the city eases its way out of lockdown, in our latest episode of Let’s Talk More, Romail Gulzar caught up with Leicester City Centre Director, Sarah Harrison, to discuss her life of work and travel, the council’s support for local businesses during the pandemic and what the business landscape currently looks like in Leicester city centre.
When discussing her role with Leicester City Council, Sarah explains: “In simple terms, I’m like the link between the city centre businesses and the council. My job is to do everything we possibly can to get the city centre to perform to its best ability and to help those businesses”.
Although the negative impact that lockdown has had on businesses has been a recurrent conversation, while Sarah acknowledges that it’s been a tough 18 months, she also tells us that in Leicester, there were some positives:
“What we’re actually seeing is that many businesses said they actually had time to take a step backwards, to look at their businesses and they’ve introduced different business models which have given them different [income] streams like takeaways, when they weren’t doing takeaways before”.
She also says that the pandemic gave rise to new business ideas being brought to fruition:
“I think a lot of people that have had a dream about having their own business […] covid has made them think ‘you really need to go for your dream!’
“There’s been over 40 new businesses that have either opened or are about to open in the city centre. There’s a lot of independent businesses that have opened in the city centre, I was talking to an [estate] agent the other day and he said ‘honestly the problem is that we’re running out of space!'”.
During the pandemic, Sarah played a key role in identifying businesses that required additional funding or grants from the government. One of the predominant changes made to Leicester eateries that required funding aid was the addition of outdoor seating areas. On this change, and whether the culture of eating outdoors will continue to be adopted by venues, Sarah remains hopeful:
“That’s what has been a big success, we were very quick out of the blocks when it came to giving grants for cafe seating. We also paid for the license for the outdoor seating as well, so lots of businesses that haven’t had outdoor seating were now able to take advantage of that. I think it’s been so successful for them that they will continue to do that.
“We’ve given out over £250,000 worth of grants which has created over 1500 more seats in the public realm”.
Now that lockdown restrictions have eased, Sarah, like much of the city is happy to see a return to some semblance of normality:
“It’s just so lovely to see the city centre springing back into its normal, vibrant place”.
Although it’s clear that Sarah loves living in Leicester, prior to her role with the council, she has travelled extensively both for work and for leisure. Sarah has worked both in South Africa and Dubai for many years, in roles relating to travel and tourism but later in life, decided to return to education and moved to the United States to attend university and study Marketing, Communications and Psychology.
On this decision, she says: “I decided at the grand age of 38 that everybody had got a piece of me. And I felt that I hadn’t done enough for me.”
But her dream hadn’t alway been to work in this industry:
“I desperately wanted to be a vet on a game reserve in Africa specialising in big cats. It’s interesting how dreams can be crushed so quickly because my mother took me down to the local vet and he said ‘you’re a female, you need strength if you want to do that sort of thing. You’ll just get stuck with cats and rabbits […] you’ll never realise your dream!’”
However it’s apparent that Sarah has enjoyed the travel opportunities her roles have afforded her. She tells us: “I love history and different cultures. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been to India, I’ve been all around South America, I love learning about different cultures and how people live their lives differently to the western world.”
And while travelling, Sarah has experienced incredible things, including having the pleasure of being in attendance of one of Nelson Mandela’s speeches. Of this encounter, she says:
“When Nelson Mandela came into the room, you could hear a pin drop. Just the very presence of the man was really inspiring.
“It’s something I’ll never, ever forget and that gorgeous, enigmatic smile he had.”
It’s clear that Sarah has experienced and lived amongst a variety of cultures in her life, and from speaking to her, it’s apparent that this is what she loves most about Leicester:
“The people of Leicester are very friendly. I love the diversity. I’ve always loved different cultures.
“Leicester’s got my heart. It’s a very, very special city”.
By Gita Sarasia