Published: 00:01, 25 March 2019
A new £75m leisure complex has been branded a “ghost town” as restaurants remain empty three months after the site opened.
The Elwick Place development in Ashford town centre opened in December, bringing a six-screen Picturehouse cinema and Travelodge hotel to the town.
But eight restaurants initially expected to be filled by big-name chains still sit vacant - and it is expected taxpayers will soon have to pick up the rent bill.
Cllr Dara Farrell (Lab), who represents the Victoria ward which takes in the Elwick Place site, says Ashford Borough Council “needs to be honest with people and say why firms are not interested”.
He said: “When it was first being talked about, they were mentioning big name restaurants, but now they are talking to independents.
“I am not saying local retailers shouldn’t be allowed in there, but it is an admission by the council that it can’t get any of the big boys.
“It is going to be a white elephant if they don’t start getting people in.”
Cllr Farrell says the site is “not living up to what was promised”.
“You never see anyone walking in or out of Elwick Place,” he said.
“I love Ashford and I want to make it work, but the taxpayers will be getting the bill soon if they are not filled.
“It is meant to make money for the council - not lose it.”
When KentOnline revealed in December that taxpayers are set to pick up the rent bill, ABC said a business rates exemption meant the ratepayers would not foot with the bill for the first three months.
Three months have now passed, but it is not clear when taxpayers will be left with the bill as ABC says it is in in discussion with the valuation office “as to when liability is likely to start”.
The authority would not go into any further detail when asked by KentOnline.
A council spokesman said: “At present there is no requirement for the council to pay business rates, although we are in discussion with the valuation office as to when liability is likely to start.
“There is strong interest from a number of local retail providers on the units and we hope to be able to reveal who will the first to join Picturehouse and Travelodge in the coming weeks.
“As well as some long term tenants who are very close to signing agreements, we have been in discussions with a number of potential tenants on taking up occupation at Elwick Place in the short term, and again, we hope to provide an update shortly.
“As previously stated, the current retail market is difficult, therefore it has long been planned that Elwick Place would open in phases, with the main anchor tenants and the site opening before Christmas, and other units being let during 2019.
“We are delighted the two main anchor tenants, Picturehouse and Travelodge, which we believe are trading well, have become welcome additions to the town.
'We are delighted the two main anchor tenants, Picturehouse and Travelodge, which we believe are trading well, have become welcome additions to the town...' - Ashford Borough Council
“We remain confident the units will be filled in time.
"All our investments, including Elwick Place, will secure long-term revenue streams for the council and taxpayers through rents and business rates so we can sustain and improve services for our local residents and ensure Ashford continues to have the lowest council tax in Kent.”
Andy Hope, from Egerton, says the development is an "absolute ghost town".
He said: "It's a shame there are all those units without anything in them.
"We'll just have to wait to see what happens.
"It shows a lack of market research, they've not researched the viability of the project before going ahead with it.
"We just think the council is out of touch with reality.
"It hasn't looked into what it needs to be successful.
"It looks nice but there's no one in it, it's an absolute ghost town. I think they should go for shops instead of restaurants, we have enough of those in the town.
"They just forged ahead with it without taking people's views into account."