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Discovery Park in Sandwich spearheads town's economic comeback after Pfizer pulled out three years ago but there is still uncertainty

18 December 2013
by Chris Price

The growth of Discovery Park has made Sandwich an unlikely economic success story.

However, unresolved transport issues and the arrival of two supermarkets are causing uncertainty.

Three years ago, the outlook for Sandwich was pretty bleak.

Discovery Park is enticing large and small businesses to fill vacant office space

Discovery Park is enticing large and small businesses to fill vacant office space

Its largest employer Pfizer announced it was pulling out of its research centre in February 2011, at a cost of 2,400 jobs.

It was a major blow to the east Kent economy as the recession continued to bite.

But despair turned to optimism in August last year as the drugs giant sold the site to a private consortium.

Discovery Park was born.

Today, the 534-acre site is home to more than 60 companies, employing 1,300 people.

Even Pfizer has stayed on in a smaller capacity, keeping 650 staff at the centre it made famous worldwide for the development of Viagra.

With companies enjoying up to 100% business rate relief thanks to its Enterprise Zone status, it is an example of industry rising from the ashes.

Discovery Park House in Discovery Park, the former Pfizer site in Sandwich

Discovery Park House in Discovery Park, the former Pfizer site in Sandwich

“If someone had said to us a year ago we would have exceeded 60 tenants in just over a year, I think we would have settled for that,” says managing director Paul Barber.

“It was difficult to predict how far it would go. Some people said it is a remote location and we’d struggle to attract people but we had more confidence than that.”

It is hard to disagree with Paul’s assured stance, given the support Discovery Park has received.

He says David Cameron regularly gets in touch, recently praising the site during Prime Minister’s Questions.

Companies of all types have shown an interest in the site, which Paul says is key to running a vibrant business park.

This month law firms Cripps Harries Hall and Brachers announced they would be opening offices there.

Paul says: “Science and technology will be at the heart of everything we do but all such companies need lawyers, accountants, marketing and IT support.

Paul Barber, managing director of Discovery Park

Paul Barber, managing director of Discovery Park

“Attracting different companies makes it more likely to be a success as a science park than if we had only science companies.

"There’s a nice little community on site where people are feeding off each other.”

Despite the success so far, Discovery Park is yet to become home to the kind of major company which would replace the employment provided by Pfizer. The reason for that, Paul believes, is infrastructure.

He remained tight-lipped last month when the government announced a six-month extension of high-speed services from Sandwich and Deal to London until October 2014.

That’s all very well for commuters but Paul needs more trains bringing commuters the other way, from London to Sandwich.

And rather than a greater frequency of HS1 trains to Sandwich, Paul thinks a high-speed route to a new station near Manston Airport could be the answer – the Manston Parkway station on the proposed 800-home 112-acre Manston Green development on the edge of Ramsgate.

The master plan for the proposed Manston Green development

The master plan for the proposed Manston Green development

“If a station is built there and there’s track and signal improvements between there and Ashford, then that could make the journey from Manston to St Pancras at about the one hour mark,” he says.

“If we can have hourly services in both directions throughout the day, that would be a game changer.

“We are keen to see Sandwich continue to be linked with London by fast train but of greater importance to Discovery Park is a fast link from Manston Airport to St Pancras.”

Discovery Park does not just hold the key for replacing the number of jobs lost through the closure of Pfizer’s research operation.

It could also benefit the town centre, as businesses use services there and town centrefootfall increases as employees who travel from London explore.

Sandwich High Street

Sandwich High Street

A park and ride service was piloted from the site last month, ferrying tourists and workers to Sandwich’s medieval streets and independent shops.

Yet despite all the positive signs, one big issue has made many traders put their champagne on ice.

Two supermarket chains have planning applications being considered by Dover District Council, which many small businesses fear could damage footfall.

While the bid from Waitrose will be based in the town centre, Discovery Park have applied to build a Sainsbury’s on some unused buildings on their site.

“Everyone wants to know the outcome of the planning applications,” says business owner Kim Wood, who is also a member of the Sandwich and District Chamber of Commerce.

He has run his shop on King’s Street, Kim Wood Jewellers, since 2004 and says he feels growing anxiety among fellow business owners.

Kim Wood in his jewellers shop in King Street, Sandwich

Kim Wood in his jewellers shop in King Street, Sandwich

He says: “We’re not saying it’s all doom and gloom but once we get the final say on the supermarkets, everyone will have a clear focus on what they need to do.

“We hope it doesn’t affect too many businesses in the town but if it does, we need to encourage companies that won’t compete with a Sainsbury’s or Waitrose.

“It is about finding businesses that won’t get strangled by a big superstore.”

Speaking to the hierarchy at Sandwich Chamber of Commerce, there is a clear preference for the bid of Sainsbury’s on Discovery Park.

Chairman Mark Moorhouse said: “It would avoid the negative impact of one of the supermarket chains developing a site in or close to Sandwich town centre.

“The plans would also reflect the views of our members about the need for growth at other locations such as Discovery Park and the benefits that Sandwich town centre businesses could gain as a result.”

Like the proposals for rail links and the regeneration of Discovery Park, the decision on the supermarkets is yet more evidence that Sandwich is a town economically poised.

Waitrose wants to build an 18,000sqft store with 172 parking spaces off Dover Road, near Sandwich station, along with a new doctor’s surgery and pharmacy.

If approved, the new store will create about 150 jobs and halt the trend for families to shop at supermarkets out of town. A decision is due in January.

The company was keen to allay fears about it affecting the business of independent traders in the town centre.

Waitrose spokesman James Armstrong said: “We want to see Sandwich thrive and should we be given the opportunity to open, we are keen to work with local traders to create a vibrant town centre that benefits everyone.

“A retail report commissioned by Dover District Council in 2012 found that approximately 70% of Sandwich’s food expenditure is going to supermarkets outside of the town. We want to play our part in addressing that.

“Our proposal is in keeping with the size of store identified by the council in the same report which concluded that there is a need for new convenience floor-space in Sandwich.

“We are eager to meet with retailers in Sandwich to discuss our plans and will be writing to them individually in the next couple of weeks to arrange meetings in the new year.”

Meanwhile, Discovery Park hope Sainsbury’s will develop a 30,000sqft food store on some unwanted buildings in part of the site, with 344 parking spaces and a petrol station.

If approved it will create about 160 jobs. That decision is due this month.

Sainsbury’s spokesperson Janet Heald said: “We are interested in increasing our presence in the area, but at the moment, there are no confirmed plans.”

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