An angry man dressed as a chicken, a police presence to calm a picket and no fewer than 1,900 letters of objection. Ebley Mill’s planning committee meeting in February 2002 was certainly more colourful than most, writes Simon Hacker.
At the heart of the bid, a question loomed: would permission for the building of the iconic McDonald’s arches at Merrywalks in Stroud change the town irrevocably? Would it signal a new century of retail vitality, or hoist a white flag of surrender to big brands and globalisation?
Few were reticent with their answers back then. The 85-seater restaurant and drive-through lane at Merrywalks, said the protest group Catalyst, was too much to swallow: Stroud would sabotage its economic viability, shred its green cred and lure more cars, driven by people who might not even undo their safety belts to eat, let alone engage on foot with the rest of the town’s retail offer.
County Highways officials added more weight to their argument by ruling the bid unsafe.
Against the objections though, 50 residents ventured a thought that it might be a good idea. Could it be possible that the world’s biggest fast-food brand, here in the town, might actually attract more retail activity?
Fast forward to 2021 and as Stroud ‘Maccy-Ds’ hits retail adulthood, how did all those objections pan out? Veteran Stroud Chamber of Trade member Ron Cree, who owns R&R Books with his partner Ruth Pyecroft, says in 2002 there was little time to process the go-ahead from planners.
“The branch went up virtually overnight,” said Ron, who organises Stroud’s Indoor Market and who’s been selling books in Stroud since 1994. “The general fear was the whole ethos of McDonald’s would be the last thing the town needed.”
But McDonald’s got on board with the Chamber of Trade from day one, he explained – and members soon learned an interesting fact. On profit from turnover, for initial footfall and car visits, the pitstop eatery sat near the top of the UK’s branches.
“It was one of those Stroud things,” he recalled. “We had a typical Stroud protest, but the reality is what it has brought as a key major name in the high street. We were quickly seeing it was good that this big brand wanted to come.”
Soon after opening, the new McDonald’s met stern criticism for litter, but the managers deployed staff as litter pickers. “They have always wanted to engage, they have always listened to us and always been responsive,” Ron said.
Ultimately, he added, retailers and shoppers in Stroud have discovered new confidence.
“History has shown that we can handle all manner of restaurants, food stalls, cafés, and take-aways; it’s what Stroud is famous for. Looking back to 2003, this big name coming to town did help to drive that success.”