Published: 12:00, 09 January 2020
A long-awaited model railway centre could move into part of Ashford's soon-to-be-empty Debenhams store.
Bosses behind the Ashford International Model Railway Excellence Centre, also known as AIMREC, are in discussions with the owners of County Square about taking over one of the floors in the huge department store.
Debenhams will leave the town next week after 11 years in the Kennedy Wilson-owned shopping centre, with its final day of trading confirmed for Sunday, January 19.
County Square chiefs had expected the three-storey shop to remain open until Friday, January 24, but bosses at the department store moved the closing date forward last week.
AIMREC chief executive Cliff Parsons confirmed he is in talks with the shopping centre about moving into the site, but would not give any further details when asked by KentOnline's sister title the Kentish Express this week.
Last month, a marketing suite opened at the Elwick Place development opposite Debenhams, but AIMREC only has a one-year lease on the unit and Mr Parsons says the group will move out "as quickly as possible" if a permanent tenant is found.
If it does open in Debenhams, it would end the group's lengthy search for a permanent home, which has seen moves to the former Newtown and Klondyke railway works fall through in recent years.
County Square's retail scheme director Stacey Bell confirmed the shopping centre's landlord is in talks with a "number of interested parties" about taking on the Debenhams site.
"We were surprised to hear Debenhams has pulled the closing date forward," she said.
"We were gearing up for the closing day on January 24.
"It is a very sad situation, but County Square has an annual footfall of six million a year and we have managed to hold our own despite challenging conditions."
Ms Bell says shopping centre staff work to ensure they offer a "community feel".
"It is encouraging that, as the industry faces challenging times, people are still wanting to come in," she added.
"The potential housing growth in Ashford is always going to encourage retailers to the shopping centre.
"Debenhams is one of our key retailers, but there are another 50-odd great brands at the centre providing the full breadth of the retail offering."
The AIMREC plans have been discussed for many years, with bosses aiming to showcase the town's railway history.
Chiefs say they plan to build a centre which will allow visitors to "immerse themselves in railway heritage in a hands-on experience".
It will feature a number of layouts, photographs and memorabilia connected to Ashford’s railway heritage.
The project has attracted support from The Who frontman Roger Daltrey and musician Jools Holland.
In its temporary unit currently open underneath the Picturehouse cinema at Elwick Place, the AIMREC board is using the site to promote its longer term plans to create a permanent model railway entertainment and educational centre in Ashford.
Six tracks are currently installed in the unit - including the layout which won Ashford-based modelling team The Railmen of Kent the Channel 5 Great Model Railway Challenge.
The unit - which was initially expected to be filled by a big-name restaurant - is open to the public free of charge every Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm.
More by this authorDan Wright