The retail vacancy rate is increasing due to the corona crisis. A few years ago, entrepreneurs in Boxtel came up with a plan to lure people to the center: the Brabant town was to become the dinosaur village of the Netherlands. The experiment failed miserably. A reconstruction.
On the central roundabout of Boxtel is a plastic dinosaur four meters long and two meters high. It is a Styracosaurus: a four-legged horse with small eyes and a horn on its nose. With Sinterklaas, the roundabout dino wears a Sinterklaas costume. At Christmas he gets a Santa hat, with last year even a small plastic dinosaur as a Christmas child in a manger next to it. Residents of the North Brabant workers’ village (30,000 inhabitants) then share pictures of their dinosaurs en masse on Facebook and Instagram. That also happens on Saturday evenings after going out. Then tipsy youngsters climb on the Styracosaurus and take selfies with their prehistoric village mascot.
But the story about the beloved roundabout dinosaur also has a tragic side. The building, installed in 2017 by Prehistoric Museum director René Fraaije (61), should have become just one of the many faces of ‘Dinodorp Boxtel’. If it had been up to Fraaije and a number of enthusiastic entrepreneurs, the center of Boxtel would have been full of dino benches. In order to revitalize the village center, one of the largest plastic dinosaurs in the world had to be built on the market – ‘three buses long’ – on which children could play. In road paint, dinosaur paw prints would point out walking routes between shops and cafes. Fraaije even fantasized about a lifelike dinosaur on the viaduct over the A2. But none of that worked out.
The dinosaurs had to arm Boxtel against increasing vacancy rates. The new generation orders clothes online or goes to big cities for a day of shopping. A problem for many municipalities: by 2020 more than 7 percent of Dutch retail properties will be vacant. This will only increase due to the economic consequences of the corona crisis, predicted research firm Locatus two weeks ago. As an attempted solution, municipalities are looking for their unique selling point, an ‘experience’, in the hope of attracting tourists. Nuenen profiles itself with Van Gogh walking tours as the painter’s former and idyllic residence. Overijssel’s Zwartewaterland – one of the few places where more churches are being built than are disappearing – attracts tourists with religious heritage.
But no Dutch municipality came up with such an inventive plan as Boxtel. What did go well was the Prehistoric Museum on the outskirts of the village. It attracts more than 80,000 visitors every year, largely thanks to small dinosaur fans who bring along parents and grandparents. Boxtel may be known for little more than its train station, Yvon Jaspers and one of the largest slaughterhouses in the Netherlands, but the Otijdmuseum has now become one of the ten most visited museums in the province. What if museum visitors could be lured to the village center?
So there was a plan. A ‘unique collaboration’, as all those involved now look back, from the municipality and entrepreneurs to the passionate dinoman Fraaije. After the visit to the Prehistoric Museum, children would be told that six dinosaurs have escaped. To the shopping center of Boxtel, a three minute drive. With a Pokémon Go-like augmented reality app, they had to go dinosaur hunting there. Parents, it was hoped, would be tempted for a cup of coffee or a visit to the local clothing store. So entrepreneurs, just like the municipality, paid for the app. In 2017 a spectacular launch took place: with smoke machines, robot dinosaurs, hundreds of children and ambitions for national television. Did Boxtel manage to save the shopping center with virtual dinosaurs?
The Brabant dinosaur adventure starts on the Isle of Wight. The British Dino Museum there launched a similar tracking app in 2013. Fraaije was inspired in 2016: with such an app, he would be able to attract 100,000 visitors per year on his museum grounds. Then he generates enough income to keep the museum running smoothly without subsidy. Fraaije has been obsessed with fossils since he was eleven. In the 1970s he exhibited his discoveries as a geology student in a Brabant barn. He single-handedly developed that passion into a thriving company. At the top of his current museum, he shows how volunteers and ‘dinosaur builders’ reconstruct a Diplodocus skeleton with professional equipment. “We can then also fully finance the scientific part.”
Just when Fraaije wants to have the app built, the brand new ‘center manager’ Berry Dankers gets the idea that the dinosaur museum can be Boxtel’s rescue. Dankers – who says he was once Prince Carnival and ‘knows how the hares run’ in the village – had to build a bridge between the unwieldy municipal council and entrepreneurs in 2016 as an ‘oil man’. And also: come up with something against the withering of the shopping center.
After a phone call, he and Fraaije get together, with a few ambitious entrepreneurs and the alderman for economic affairs. Fraaije talks about the planned app. “One plus one was two,” says Dankers. That app would come with 25,000 euros in municipal subsidies and 25,000 euros from entrepreneurs and the museum. Children just wouldn’t catch virtual dinosaurs in the dinosaur forest, but between the local shops and cafes. Museum director Fraaije is a scientist, Dankers saw, not a catering man. “He is not going to bake chips for his visitors. But Boxtel is bursting with potential for those tourists. ”
The municipality is more reluctant to make Boxtel the Jurrasic Park of the Netherlands. They are ‘enthusiastic’, says Dankers. But the step to really profile Boxtel as ‘dinotown’, ‘to embrace the plan’, is not what the municipality wants in 2017, admits alderman for economic affairs Eric van den Broek. According to him, Boxtel has more to offer than dinosaurs. With the Het Groene Woud nature reserve, the village has long wanted to profile itself as a ‘green heart’ between large Brabant cities. And it has been trying to breathe new life into a run-down ecological institution for years.
Dankers is critical. “Many municipalities want to profile themselves as green or sustainable. Boxtel will not stand out with that. Our nature reserve can never compete with the Veluwe or Biesbosch. ”
Plans to bring a 40-meter-long dinosaur to Brabant are canceled. No is said to dino benches of four hundred euros each. “There was no commitment”, say Dankers and Fraaije. Alderman Van den Broek says that he has not felt sufficient support among citizens and entrepreneurs to change course. “We must serve the entire congregation, not just the dinosaur museum.” What he is referring to is that the Fraaije itself would also work out well if Boxtel became a showcase for his museum.
Talk of the town
But there appears to be support. More than seventy entrepreneurs from Boxtel will go to the museum in the spring of 2017 to borrow plastic dinosaurs. In the Hema of the village a Brachiosaurus (a long neck) arises with a coat on. A flying Pterosaurus is mounted on the facade of the barbershop. Dinosaurs appear in shop windows of clothing and eyewear stores. Fraaije buys the iconic roundabout dino for the village for twelve thousand euros. Shortly before the launch of the app, the suddenly emerging dinosaurs are talk of the town in the Brabant village. The local newspaper Brabants Centrum writes about it every week. The municipality is also improving after the launch of the app, Fraaije and Dankers hope. Then they see that Boxtel does want the dinosaurs as a signboard.
About two hundred primary school children from Brabant watch a show by two men in robot dinosaur suits. It is June 2017, the moment when the app will be launched. The NOS and the Jeugdjournaal did not come, but families from Boxtel are enthusiastically moving to the center. When they scan the signs there, they see animated flying dinosaurs above St. Peter’s Basilica through their camera. When all dinosaurs have been caught, children get a free ice cream in the snack bar, parents a cup of coffee in café het Hart van Boxtel. Normally only at carnival so many children and parents stroll through the center, says a delighted Fraaije. At the same time he knows: this is not the target group. In the weeks after the launch, outsiders must be lured to the center.
Can you manage that? In the summer of 2017, every now and then a Randstad family will go on a dinosaur hunt in Boxtel. Hart van Boxtel owner William van Dinther does indeed see families settling on his terrace for Oetime Discount. In the first year he even receives a ‘few thousand men’ via the app.
But the target of three hundred tourists a week is nowhere near being achieved. The app is no longer used, says the bar owner. It bled to death. There was no long-term plan to continue to attract tourists. The leaflets in the museum were running out. Updates failed to materialize. So bar owner Van Dinther stopped the dino discount. The manager in the Hema says bitterly that she has had several dinosaurs in the store, but that the entire project “did not attract any customers.” In the past two years, nobody has come to claim an ice cream in snack bar Strik. Shopkeepers returned their dinosaurs to the museum at the end of 2017 because they took up too much space.
Fraaije saw the project ‘slip out of his hands’. Entrepreneurs could have responded more to the app, he thinks: mammoth burgers at the chip shop, dinosaur pajamas, a glass of dinosaur blood or a dinosaur ice cream. But he also understands that shopkeepers have enough to worry about. In the meantime, everything went so slowly at the municipality that in three years’ time there was no signpost to the center at the museum, says former center manager Dankers. “While I asked for it every week.” Fraaije has been waiting for a year and a half for the permit for two Europasaurs that he wants to place on another roundabout. Alderman Van den Broek admits that ‘the official cogs sometimes turn too slowly’.
The plan to lure tourists to the center of the provincial village with a dino hunter app has failed. A shame, says Gertjan Slob of the Locatus research agency. “It is smart if villages and towns profile themselves with something unique.” He does think it is too optimistic to see an app as a rescue. “The reality is that a lot of empty shops cannot be prevented. Small clothing stores are simply not that interesting for the new generation, and they will not be. ” Locatus advises municipalities to compact their village centers and to give empty buildings outside them a different social purpose. “Dentists, physiotherapists, libraries. Or living spaces. ” Boxtel is also working on such a compact center and the repurposing of empty shop premises.
In retrospect, Dankers thinks that he may have been ‘too naive’ with his hopes for Boxtel dinosaur village, but Fraaije is still optimistic. Outside on his property, he points to the enthusiastic primary school children and their parents trudging behind between the plastic meat eaters. “If the municipality continues, it is still possible.”
After the retrospective meeting with Trouw, alderman Van den Broek sees ‘new opportunities’. He wants to speed up the permit for the new roundabout dinosaurs and will once again discuss the plastic dinosaurs with Fraaije. “The market will be difficult, but it might fit in the garden next to the town hall.” At the same time, the battle to become the dino center of the Netherlands is now even more difficult. Opened in 2016, Dinoland in Zwolle already attracted more visitors in its opening year than its competitor in Boxtel, and even has plans to open a hostel.
Meanwhile, Boxtel’s appeal remains limited. Peter Lanting (39) from Breda is not planning to go to the center with his four-year-old son around lunchtime, he says after a visit to the dinosaur museum. “What do I have to do there? I don’t even know if there is a pancake house. ” Cas van Gaffen (61) also leaves with his grandchildren to his daughter in Gemert, 45 minutes away, for a cup of coffee. “Boxtel can be very beautiful, but I’ve never been there.”
A big wave of vacancy is on the way
It is still not too bad, but large retail vacancies are on the way, predicts Locatus. At the end of next year, the market researcher expects the lowest store occupancy of all time measured by them – lower than during the credit crisis.
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