Published: 08:23, 14 October 2021
| Updated: 14:24, 14 October 2021
Buyers interested in Ashford's County Square will have to diversify the centre’s offering as shopping habits have changed for good, according to a leading business figure.
The prime site has been put on the market for £13.5 million less than 10 years since international investment firm Kennedy Wilson snapped it up.
Now Jo James, chief executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, says changes will be needed to ensure the success of the 1975-built mall, which grew by a third in 2008 when a £60m extension was completed.
“It’ll never be a shopping centre as it was – shoppers’ desires have changed,” she said.
“I don’t see anyone coming along and thinking we will have retail in every area, there has to be a mix of other facilities.
“We have altered our habits – we are out to eat and drink more and socialise with added shopping.”
This week, Ashford Borough Council confirmed it is not interested in buying the centre, which has lost both M&S and Debenhams in recent years.
The town's MP Damian Green says the potential sale “shows how difficult town centre retail is across the country”.
“I do hope a new and dynamic owner will come forward to take it forward into the future,” he said.
“Retail is changing, any town centre needs to have shops that are destinations for customers and can keep the footfall up.
“There is a huge amount of effort to make the town centre strong again.”
The mall, which was previously known as the Tufton Centre, has room for 70 stores, making up 360,106 sq ft of retail space.
It lost its largest store, Debenhams, in January 2020 after the firm went into administration, but has been boosted by the imminent arrival of HomePlus Furniture in the ex-M&S unit.
Mrs James says she remains optimistic about the town’s future.
“I think the retail sector has gone through a difficult time over the last 18 months, but there are still opportunities out there and I hope any new investors will see the potential of this one,” she said.
“Ashford has seen tremendous investment especially around the Elwick Road area, and that will only help inspire any new investors.
“The shape of retail has changed, and will continue to change; I’m interested to see the plans from any interested parties coming forward.”
Mrs James added: “While there is the changing shape of retail, there is not the spend in the town centre environment that there should be.
“Gone are the days where shopping centres can rely heavily on one big anchor tenant, that was very true of County Square and Debenhams.”
'Any change to the make-up of a town centre tends to expand choice...'
Before being sold in 2013, the centre was previously owned by the Britannica portfolio, which was managed by CBRE Global Investors.
The site, which features 600 car park spaces, grew by a third in 2008 when a £60m extension was completed.
Earlier this year, a Jobcentre opened in the former River Island unit and the YMCA charity filled a shop next to Poundland.
Mrs James added: “While it hasn’t been long in terms of ownership, it may be understandable that it’s gone up for sale with the shape that retail is in.
“Having said that, I am not worried from a business perspective, if the town had been starved of investment then I would be more concerned.
“Whether it is priced right or not, that’s for investors to see.”
Rob Woods, a former town centre manager for Ashford, Folkestone and Hastings, based in Woodchurch, says while news of the listing is surprising, there is cause for optimism.
“The first point I would make is that no one likes change and I think it’s understandable that some people will react negatively to this news, especially given the horror stories about high street decline,” he said.
“Having experienced a similar situation in Hastings, I can say that a change of ownership can be a very positive thing, so I’m looking on the optimistic side.
“That’s because consumers will have the benefit of retaining the bulk of the existing outlets with the added benefit of seeing either new retail names in the town or alternative and clever use of the current vacancies.
“Any change to the make-up of a town centre tends to expand choice and create more interest – which is good for consumers and footfall.
“A centre that appeals to a broader customer base will encourage more people to stay longer and spend more money.”
A County Square spokeswoman declined to comment on the potential sale.