California, Cambridge... Dartford – could a new co-working and living space pave the way for a mini Silicon Valley in Kent?
That's the ambition of investors behind the transformation of a disused court building and former police station.
The Hill Hub development will see the Dartford Magistrates' Court and former West Hill Police Station in Highfield Road turned into a new co-working space for entrepreneurs, freelancers and start ups.
Work is already under way to refurbish the one-time cop shop with a launch date expected in October .
Offices will be created from former cells but architectural features of historical significance will be retained.
Once complete it will have room for up to 120 people with a mix of large, open-plan offices as well as the opportunity to share smaller rooms with a colleague or "cellmate".
There will also be meeting rooms, a roof terrace, disabled access and a cafe which will be open to the public.
But the pioneers behind the project want to offer more than floorspace and hope its creation will pave the way for business mentoring, workshops, and investment opportunities to rival those of existing tech hubs.
Rehoboth Property chief executive Sanmi Adegoke believes the new development could be key to unlocking untapped potential in the region.
“We are ecstatic to offer this exciting opportunity to the Dartford community," he said. "It is our passion to bring opportunities and inspire dreams for entrepreneurs and small businesses."
As part of the plans, the Hill Hub is looking for accountants, designers, lawyers and IT professionals, among other service providers to be fixed on site.
Sanmi hopes this will allow freelancers and small businesses to network more easily and build their business by simply "coming into the office".
With lots of people are working from home due to the pandemic and with no immediate plans for employees to return to some offices, he believes the community is crying out for a flexible space like this.
"This is a thriving place – what we have in Dartford is a mini Silicon Valley," he said.
He added he was particularly excited about delivering this opportunity at a time when the town was undergoing a period of huge change with two major residential projects in the works.
They have also teamed up with Kent Foundation, a charity offering free business advice and mentoring to young entrepreneurs and business owners in the county aged 30 and under.
"This is really where you want to be," he said. "In-house we are going to have an incubator fund to support businesses, we are going to have a business development programme to help support businesses post-Covid.
"We are going to have all the necessary support for your business to thrive in a difficult time.
"What you need to take your business to the next level, we're going to provide that in-house for you."
Rehoboth CEO Sanmi Adegoke discusses the new Hill Hub development at the former Magistrates' Court
This week, academics have warned of the risk of spreading the coronavirus when people return to offices after months of working from home.
But Sanmi remains confident they will be ready to invite workers in October and said site operating protocols were in place to ensure compliance with strict social distancing requirements.
"We are making sure everything we do is Covid compliant," he added.
The developers are currently seeking further approval from the council for some tweaks to their plans which would see the courthouse behind the old police station building turned into a "co-living" space.
The co-living concept has been billed as a potential solution to the urban housing crisis of high rents and social isolation and are already popping up in parts of East London.
Sanmi envisages that this area would primarily be targeted at graduates and young millennials aged between 18 and 30.
It would consist of short-stay housing in which tenants share communal living facilities such as kitchens, as well as having access to common areas hosting events and activities. Other common features include gyms and cinema rooms.
The chief executive hopes this will provide a space for graduates and entrepreneurs to bounce ideas off each other while having easy access to a co-working space next door.
"Our ecosystem is the unique selling point of this space," Sanmi said, adding it would provide a support system similar to that found at university.
"We are trying to bring into Dartford something unique."