Published: 06:00, 29 October 2020
| Updated: 09:53, 29 October 2020
Twenty years have passed since the Ashford Designer Outlet first opened its doors, creating more than 800 jobs and bringing big-name brands to the town. Here, Dan Wright looks back at its history...
If you have never heard of the 'Ashford Meadows Leisure Park', you won't be alone.
But back in July 1991, that rather flowery title was the name given to the Ashford Designer Outlet, which was then just a sketch on a planning document submitted to the borough council.
Almost a decade later and after years of construction work, celebrity gardener Charlie Dimmock was cutting the ribbon and the first shoppers were filling the car park.
Now - as the recently-expanded centre reaches its 20th year - a series of photos from our archive capture its story.
Designed by Lord Richard Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, who was also responsible for the Lloyd’s building and The O2 in London, builders first started work on the huge McArthurGlen project in 1996.
The engineering firm behind the scheme was Buro Happold, which specialised in tensile structures and also built the Sydney Opera House – thought to be the inspiration for the outlet's distinctive white tent design.
Since it was named Retail Destination of the Year 2001 by readers of Retail Week magazine, the centre went on to win numerous design awards, with the highest point of the original structure hitting 324m, or 1,063ft.
In August 2013, Cllr Gerry Clarkson, leader of Ashford Borough Council, first hinted at plans to expand the shopping centre.
He revealed ambitious proposals to double the size of the outlet, adding 100,000 sq ft to the original 185,000 sq ft of retail space.
A full planning application for the expansion was given the green light by councillors in September 2015, when members voted overwhelmingly in support of the scheme.
It took until November last year for the long-awaited extension to open - two years after diggers first moved onto the site in autumn 2017 to begin construction work.
As well as the new shops, 725 new car parking spaces, Europe’s largest living wall and a £400,000 children’s play area were added to the site.
But the work wasn't without controversy as contractors were forced to close Newtown Road for months to allow for the expansion, which saw the original food court featuring McDonald's and Millie's Cookies ripped out.
The controversial road closures sparked months of delays - including a 32-week stint between April and November 2018.
Now, seven years after first mentioning plans for the £90m expansion, Cllr Clarkson says he is delighted the centre is still going strong.
"Everything that happens in Ashford - like the proposal for the film studios at Newtown and the brewery - brings vibrancy and jobs to the borough," he said.
"We are very pleased and grateful that they are here."