Published: 00:01, 15 December 2018
Taxpayers are set to be hit with the rent bill if restaurants at a new leisure complex remain unfilled.
The £75m Elwick Place development in Ashford hit the headlines in September after it was revealed all eight of its restaurant and cafe units had not attracted a tenant.
The six-screen Picturehouse cinema opens today, but Ashford Borough Council (ABC) taxpayers will have to cover the costs if the vacant units are not filled within three months of the leisure complex's opening.
Cllr Brendan Chilton (Labour), who represents the Stanhope ward, says he thinks the news will come as a disappointment to residents.
He said: "The ratepayers will have to cover the cost of the empty units if we can't find people to fill them and that is an issue.
"I do not think that is what the people of Ashford had in mind when the project was announced.
"If the units are not filled, the council will be paying for the costs of the vacant units in rates to the company managing the site.
"At the moment, all we are offering is a cinema and if we want it to be a success, clearly we need the whole package with restaurants as well."
Ahead of the opening today, bosses have covered the empty restaurant windows with images showing artist's impressions of Elwick Place.
The posters say ‘be part of it’ with the letting agents’ contact details.
An Ashford Borough Council spokesman said an initial business rates exemption means taxpayers will not have to cover the costs of the empty units immediately, but the exemption only last three months.
He said: "It has long been planned that Elwick Place will be opening in phases, with the main anchor tenants and the site opening before Christmas, and other units being let in 2019.
“We are delighted to have secured the two main anchor tenants in Picturehouse and Travelodge and am sure they will be welcome additions to the town, and will greatly improve the leisure and night-time offer.
"Discussions with interested parties continues and we are also looking at some short term ways to occupy the space in the meantime.
“There is no initial requirement to pay for the cost of vacant units as there is an initial exemption on business rates, and we remain confident they will be filled in due course.
"The council has taken a risk based decision on all of the investments its makes, and Elwick Place is no different.
"Our investments 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 the county.”
The complex was due to open last weekend, but an emergency cable fault delayed the opening.
It will now open at 10am today when ABC leader Gerry Clarkson cuts the ribbon with five-year-old Henry Rowles.
The former cattle market gateposts will be on show, as well as the 'Elwick etchings' project, which will see stories of Ashford engraved into slabs.
Ashford’s Mayor, Cllr Mrs Jessamy Blanford, will unveil the etchings.
The Travelodge hotel is scheduled to open at the development later in the month.