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After years of false starts and big ideas, things are finally looking up in Herne Bay.
Yet the town still faces many hurdles as regeneration plans kick in.
Herne Bay is a town with big plans.
Ideas to rejuvenate the once thriving Victorian seaside resort have been stewing for a long time but 2014 looks like the year when things could actually begin to happen.
The pier is welcoming visitors, a major supermarket will open by the end of the year and a successful arts festival put it back on the tourist map.
It is a remarkable comeback considering the place was on its knees in December 2012.
A council action plan to regenerate the town centre was at stalemate as developers struggled to attract investment in big projects.
Councillors refused to give planning permission to an out-of-town supermarket as it disagreed over how to invest money on infrastructure.
Its pier, devastated by a storm in 1978, lay dormant and empty, having had the leisure centre on it demolished.
To add insult to injury, the town was ridiculed in the national press for having the UK’s worst Christmas tree.
Fast forward 12 months and the picture could not be more different.
Small businesses came together to hold two day-long showcases in the town centre in July and December. In August, a festival marking the centenary of a visit by pioneering artist Marcel Duchamp inspired pieces in the Times, Telegraph and Guardian.
The pier is now host to a village of beach huts with independent traders selling vintage seaside fare and much else, with plans to expand.
“The mood is pretty good,” said Cllr Peter Lee, Canterbury City Council’s cabinet member for finance and a Herne Bay resident for more than 50 years.
“We had a successful lights switch-on combined with a showcase for firms in the town for Small Business Saturday. It is all systems go at the moment.”
The major projects set to get under way this year include an Aldi supermarket in the town centre’s Kings Road car park, next to Morrisons.
This announcement was a massive boost for the council’s regeneration plans, especially since Morrisons announced in February it was withdrawing plans to expand into the site.
As well as the supermarket, the ambitious proposals in the council’s Area Action Plan include a new hotel, medical centre and shopping precinct on the William Street car park.
As a result, the council is moving the market from its Kings Street home to a more central location on Mortimer Street and William Street.
“We have had lots of plans for a long time but the general economic situation has meant it has been difficult to get investment,” said Mr Lee.
“We want private sector investment. The offer that Aldi will give will help. It has been supermarket of the year for three years running and it is different to the supermarkets already in the town. It is another reason for people to come here.”
One who does not share Mr Lee’s optimism is Nigel Hancock, who heads the Herne Bay Independent Retail Group.
Compared to other towns, Herne Bay only has about 5% of its commercial units empty, a figure as high as 30% in other areas.
Yet many of these are charity shops and Mr Hancock says more radical ideas are needed if many traders are to stay in business this year.
He said: “Our local shops will continue to struggle against the convenience of both online and out-of-town shopping outlets in the coming year and
I strongly believe 2014 will be a make or break year for many retailers that have failed to adapt to a changing market.
“There is an increased awareness among some of our members that they must all work together to bring shoppers and visitors into Herne Bay but there are far too many who take a blinkered view with an entrenched attitude of ‘I’ll keep myself to myself thank you very much’. It is these businesses I fear for most.
“The word for 2014 among the retail community in the town must be ‘co-opertition’ – to co-operate to increase overall footfall and then compete with each other for the pound in people’s pockets once we have the feet on the street.”
For a long time Herne Bay had been gripped by a war over supermarkets, the chief protagonists being Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and now Aldi.
A consultation on plans for a Sainsbury’s to the east of the town received hundred of letters against the scheme.
The majority of these were written on a template also recommending a Tesco store to be built on the site of the former Herne Bay golf club, where plans for a 500-home development with facilities for local sports clubs have been put forward.
However, developers Quinn Estates eventually removed the Tesco supermarket from their plans, after both sides could not agree terms on the size of the store.
Meanwhile the Sainsbury’s plans remain under review by the council as they debate how to get the supermarket to contribute financially to the town centre, known as Section 106 funding.
Since then, the plans have emerged for budget chain Aldi to open a store on the Kings Road car park.
The German firm signed papers on the site in October and will build a 3,500sqft shop next to rivals Morrisons.
Set to open by the end of this year, it is hoped the move will be the catalyst for the £50m regeneration of the town centre.
A key decision in 2014 will be whether the council gets lottery funding to redevelop its clocktower, the oldest in the world, built in 1837.
If approved, it will receive £232,200, adding £100,000 of its own money.
It could also attract investment for developers who have proposed knocking down the former Tivoli amusements and building high-end apartments, while also creating a link from the town centre to the landmark.
Mr Lee said: “I can understand people feeling frustrated and thinking this is all pie in the sky but within the next year they will see definite improvements which will convince people we are moving in the right direction.”
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