Ashford Borough Council’s bold decision to buy a struggling shopping mall and turn it around is paying dividends just one year on.
Most of the vacant units in the international town’s Park Mall have already been filled and footfall has risen by around seven per cent.
The authority stepped in to acquire the long leasehold in June 2015, in direct response to calls from residents to reinvigorate the run-down shopping centre.
Since then, it has been attracting an increasing number of quality independent retailers, thanks largely to its flexibility with licences and huge support for newcomers. This has ranged from practical advice and help with social media to promotion through LoveAshford.com, the UK’s first digital high street. The turnaround of Park Mall’s fortunes has also encouraged many existing traders to extend their leases.
The first new retailers moved into the shopping centre in July 2015. Three months later, a number of local independent start-up businesses came together as a collective to showcase their products within Made in Ashford, a shop run by Ashford council and LoveAshford.com and the next stage of the Pop-Up Ashford project which offers retailers access to one-to-one support.
Three more quality independents arrived in December – including Happy & Glorious, which sells a range of British-made products and has praised the council for its “support, advice and encouragement”.
Park Mall’s versatility became evident in January this year, attracting top creative agency Recursive Media from its former base in Brighton. The leading audio-visual, multi-media and acoustics company, which boasts clients including the Royal Society of Arts, Harrods, the 2012 Olympic Park and the Dubai Mall, cites Ashford’s great links with Europe and London as a key reason for the move.
CEO David Yates says: “Park Mall is a good creative space for our business. We employ a freelance workforce from all over the UK, so a base only 38 minutes from St Pancras is very attractive indeed. What sealed the deal for us was the unwavering enthusiasm and warm welcome of Ashford Borough Council and its ambition to develop a dynamic new business hub in the Commercial Quarter.”
The agency is now eyeing space in the Commercial Quarter when the first phase of the development opens within yards of Ashford International Station.
Independent retailers who have made the move to Park Mall are not the only ones benefiting from its rejuvenation. Neighbouring stores are also reporting a positive impact on business – including Wilko, which says improvements have driven around 500 more customers through its doors every week over the past 12 months.
The purchase of Park Mall is just one of several initiatives undertaken by the council as part of its ambitious regeneration and investment strategy and follows on from the successful acquisition of International House and Dover Place in 2014.
It’s an approach that is clearly paying off: a recent Ipsos Mori survey confirmed that Ashford, currently ranked as the best business location in Kent, is now outperforming everywhere else in the UK in terms of retail footfall, with visitors to the town up 1.6% year-on-year.
Ashford has also just been accepted on to the third year of the national Business in the Community’s Healthy High Streets programme in recognition of its successful delivery of projects such as Park Mall. The programme aims to provide intensive corporate support to 100 High Streets, connecting corporate businesses with established Town Teams to support town centre regeneration and growth.
The authority’s leader, Cllr Gerry Clarkson, says: “The fact that many of the independent stores have taken the bold step to open, having previously tested their business on the High Street in the original PopUp Ashford shop, illustrates that the Portas Pilot work undertaken by Ashford’s Town Team has been the catalyst for this success.
“The turnaround of Park Mall is an example of what can be achieved if stakeholders work together to improve a retail centre’s fortunes. Such is its success that other authorities are now coming to see for themselves what we are doing.”
The Park Mall project has been managed by Ashford Borough Council’s Regeneration Manager, Jo Wynn Carter, who was praised by Mary Portas in her second-year report to government.
Jo says: “Park Mall’s independent-led offer has enthused shoppers and the past year has been very encouraging. There’s a real buzz in the town centre and it’s been great to see some solid business plans come forward.”