It’s sometimes hard to know whether to feel optimistic or filled with dread about the prospects for Carlisle city centre. On the plus side we have the £2m restaurant, bar, function room and accommodation plan for Victoria Viaduct, revealed in today’s Cumberland News.

Across the city centre, Edinburgh Woollen Mill recently brought its global headquarters to Castle Street, along with about 300 jobs.

On the other hand... the Central Plaza building remains empty and crumbling. Speculation continues to surround House of Fraser. Its Carlisle store was saved last year but might not survive another round of closures.

Perhaps Hoopers on Castle Street sums up the uncertainty. Empty for years, it is now being marketed by a new agent as a potential hotel. Will it become an upmarket asset to the city or a decaying symbol of retail decline?

Colin Glover was the city council’s leader for six years until Labour was voted out in May’s election. He feels that public and private sector partnerships are essential for the city centre, saying: “The council has to make sure the environment is right for investment.”

One example was the controversial decision to grant Edinburgh Woollen Mill a two-year business rate exemption for its headquarters.

“The presence of a company like that gives other people the confidence to look at other opportunities,” says Mr Glover. “And it has brought people into the city centre. Some of those will be using cafes, restaurants and shops. It’s brought a building that was empty for a long time back into use. Big empty buildings do not give a good image of a city centre.

“It’s good news that Hoopers has a new agent who will be looking at it with fresh eyes. Our planning department has always looked at it with an open mind. The prospect of it being another department store is fairly unlikely. It’s a wonderful location with a range of potential uses. Retail, hotel use, or a restaurant on the ground floor and apartments above.”

The Central Plaza is an example of what can happen to a building which remains empty for years. “We know the Central Plaza has been a long-running problem because the council doesn’t own it. We’ve had interest. I would hope that will now come to something.

“City centres really need civic and public leadership. When House of Fraser first got into difficulties we were very proactive in talking to property owners to look at what other options there could be for the building.

“We hope that store will continue. But we have to be aware what alternative uses there could be. It might be that House of Fraser does continue in its current form, or it might only occupy part of the building, in which case what could the rest of it be used for? The last thing we need is another empty building.

“We can’t depend solely on retail anymore. We have to give people lots of reasons to come into a city centre. And not just residents. We want people to come and visit.”

Mr Glover cites the need to stage events, to capitalise more on Carlisle’s heritage, to keep the city centre clean and to offer a range of hotels from budget to luxury. “We can’t rest on our laurels,” he says. “Other places aren’t.”

Viv Dodd, of the Carlisle City Centre Business Group ,says of Hoopers: “Everyone knows it’s a good location for a hotel, opposite the cathedral. The problem is car parking.

“Having such a prominent building empty must have an effect. When you go to most towns you’ve got buildings like that. Edinburgh Woollen Mill has had a positive impact but the question marks over House of Fraser are having a negative impact. I don’t think there’s any particular problem for Carlisle. There’s so much uncertainty around the country about Brexit. Investors and businesses don’t like uncertainty.”

In 2012 Mr Dodd was involved in the campaign to launch a Business Improvement District (BID) for the city centre. BIDs are run by businesses with the aim of improving the trading environment to attract shoppers and visitors. They are funded by a levy on business rates. The attempt to establish one in Carlisle was narrowly rejected. “I would like to see a BID here. It seems to work well in Penrith. We need to get everybody working together. Carlisle hasn’t always been good at that.”

Steve Matthews owns Bookcase and Bookends bookshops in Castle Street, and is a near-neighbour of Hoopers. “It needs to have a new use, either as a hotel or as apartments,” he says. “A hotel would be preferable because Carlisle needs more hotels.

“Carlisle has got to develop as a tourist destination in its own right. We are always called ‘gateway to the Lakes’ but Carlisle is worth visiting for its own sake. If you think of northern England, there are few cities that have our tourism potential. And yet it’s under-utilised. It could be right up there with Chester and York.”

Craig Carruthers is head of visitor services at Carlisle Cathedral. “There’s a lot more in Carlisle than when I was growing up,” he says. “Live music wasn’t very well represented, for instance. We didn’t have The Brickyard or The Old Fire Station. It’s great that people use Carlisle as a base for Hadrian’s Wall or the Lakes. But I think there’s plenty to see and do in Carlisle. Giving them more places to stay would be fantastic.”

He adds that if Hoopers was to become a hotel, its location would be a boost to what he hopes will be the city’s next visitor attraction – the redeveloped Fratry. “We have always said that it is not just for the cathedral but for Carlisle as a whole.”

Jo Lappin, chief executive of Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, believes this is a great time to invest in the county. “Carlisle Airport sends a message that Cumbria is outward-looking, that it wants to create links internationally. Borderlands is a great opportunity. It is really important that Cumbria works collectively to identify what is going to give us the best return on investment.”

She insists that the Northern Powerhouse is relevant to the county. “We have to be realistic in identifying things that really matter. Jake Berry is remaining the Northern Powerhouse minister and is now invited to Cabinet so the opportunity to be influential in terms of government is better.

“Cumbria tends to hide its light under a bushel and be matter-of-fact about things that are stellar. We matter to the nation and we matter internationally and that’s the story we need to be telling and encouraging more people to live and work here. There are lots of opportunities in a time of change and it is really important that Cumbria maximises those.”