For the first time since buying the flagship centre in May, the firm has clarified its focus to put brands in the 22 empty shops in the main centre and 13 vacant units in Ely Court.
And the developer will ask the public what they want to see now £70million plans for a cinema and restaurant extension drawn-up by previous owners Hermes have been shelved.
Darren Richards, Deputy Head of Retail, said ‘nothing has been ruled out’ [cinema included] but asked shoppers to be patient.
“Tunbridge Wells is a great place and regardless of what you might have read about the rise of online shopping, you will still need physical space even if online doubled,” he told the Times.
He said more shops can be expected within one year but plans for any refurbishment are still being decided upon. This includes any development to the Food Court. Mr Richards identified the mall’s entrance as a place where ‘lack of investment becomes very apparent’ but is confident of turning the centre around.
How do you view Royal Victoria Place [RVP] at the moment?
“This centre has not had serious investment or even proactive management for 26 years. I can sympathise with the local opinion. It’s not about throwing money at it, it’s about giving the people what they want. If we didn’t think we could do it here we wouldn’t have bothered investing. Five and a half months [since we took over] is not a long time in retail.
What brands are we likely to see?
“We are just about to start the process [of asking customers]. We would appreciate some degree of latitude. We know what brands fit when we see a place, we can see some brands that have left and may want to come back. It isn’t easy.
“I am not trying to avoid the question, but when we name brands it is a very sensitive commercial thing. And if we leave brands off the list they get very agitated. There are 5,000 retail multiples in the UK. Some of those are already here, but there are hundreds who could come here.”
Okay, so without naming names, what type of retail would suit the centre?
“There should be a good mix here that is right for everybody. If you want something that is going to really anchor the place, and this should be the place people congregate, then you need to make the effort here. Otherwise, there is nothing to point out. There are some great brands here, but they are scattered around. There is no one place where you think ‘oh, that’s great’ and that is what we are hoping to provide.”
When can we expect new retailers?
“The first thing to expect to see is some retailers coming into the vacant stores here, and that includes in Ely Court. And the next thing you can expect to see is us investing money in the centre. “You will see improvements coming through. The main thing is to stress that these things take time. It is not one big thing that changes things, it is a whole series. But if we sit here in a year and you’re saying ‘why haven’t we seen anything?’ then you are entitled to be critical of us.
Which areas need attention?
“The big attention is on where people walk in, so you are getting a better arrival experience. By the time you get halfway through these schemes [centres] that are 30 years old, the lack of investment becomes very apparent.”
What might RVP offer beyond retail?
“People should want to come whether that’s to eat, have a leisure activity or have a multiplex cinema for the development.
“We have got to make sure brands stay here and more brands come.
“They will want to see activity as well. Nothing has happened.
“I was walking around Ely Court and I thought, this is your own little Carnaby Street. That can be a really exciting vibrant place.
“It has to be distinctive. The worst thing that has happened to retail is people thinking it is cookie cutter and doing the same thing everywhere, because it does not work.
Are you committed to keeping Ely Court as it is then? Previous plans showed this was to to make way for a new development.
“No, not necessarily. While we’re working on the future of the scheme we will try and get some brands in here.
“It might be pop-ups as well.”
Once and for all then, why did you not continue with the plans to expand and build a cinema on the Ely Court site?
“Even the people who came up with the scheme did not eventually want to do it. It would be odd for us, feeling we have one of the best teams in the country, having done this in lots of places, to pick up a scheme from someone else and say we are going to do it exactly the same. Time has moved on and this environment is rapidly changing. This scheme has not even started yet and it is already five years old.”
Was the cinema aspect behind the thinking?
“In terms of listening to what people want, we can’t tell that what the people wanted was a multiplex cinema. There was no brand attached, and when you are developing a cinema they are quite specialist developments and you need to have an operator.”
KFC said they are moving out because of ‘plans’. What will happen to the Food Court?
“Their decision to move out is not because we told them we have got plans. That’s not the case. That is a question for them. There is no plan. The Food Court will be better.”
Is it an area of concern?
“It’s an acknowledgement of potential. People do not know how much potential the centre has because it has never been given a fair chance.”
Do shopping malls have a future in town centres?
“Yes, absolutely. They can’t all survive. In the next ten years, 60 per cent of spend is going to be done physically. Shops are going to shut.
The best places will thrive.”