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Apprentice star Elizabeth McKenna opens Co-Innovation Centre for small businesses, a replacement of Dover Co-operative

By Sam Lennon

Running a business is lonely but the start-up enterprises together at a new hub can support each other.

That was the message from Apprentice candidate Elizabeth McKenna when she opened the new Co-Innovation Centre in Dover yesterday.

She said: "Being in business is incredibly lonely. You have to pay the bills, do the VAT and make decisions on your own.

Apprentice contestant Elizabeth McKenna
Apprentice contestant Elizabeth McKenna

"One fantastic thing is that you are all making it here together.

"So you guys in in this are bigger than you are on your own.

"Sometimes in business things don't go as you plan but you have to take opportunities when they arise.

"So make it happen, keep your heads down, work hard and keep going.

"You're all in this together."

Co-Innovation is at Stembrook, replacing the Co-operative foodstore.

This Lottery-funded project is a collaboration between groups such as Dover Big Local and Dover District Council.

It has been created as an affordable outlet allowing local businesses to grow and allow spaces in which members of the local community can meet.

The centre is already home to 22 local businesses and also has space for 30 market traders.

In addition there is a children's area, a café and communal area for local events.

Martina White, chairperson of Dover Big Local
Martina White, chairperson of Dover Big Local

Martina White, chairperson of Dover Big Local, said: "A great deal of time and effort has gone into making this project a success.

"I find it so inspiring that a group of local people can make such a concept possible.

"I shall be watching with excitement the development of the project and seeing the community develop alongside it."

Brinley Hill, head of community services for DDC, said: "We're delighted to be supporting the Co-Innovation Centre as an incubator space for small businesses and small enterprise.

"The aim is to help provide an affordable space for them to test their business ideas, and to grow, before hopefully moving inter larger premises of their own in the town centre."

Malcolm Steven and Gaby Redman of Gaby Redman Design Studio, the first business to move into Co-Innovation
Malcolm Steven and Gaby Redman of Gaby Redman Design Studio, the first business to move into Co-Innovation

The first business to move into Co-Innovation was the Gaby Redman Design Studio, and arts and upcycled goods shop.

Owners Malcolm Steven and Gaby Redman moved their new business into the premises on December 6.

Mr Steven said: "Business is going well here. We could not have managed without moving here. The Co-Innovation is a good start-up. It's low risk to dip your toe in the water and see how your business goes."

One hope is that the new centre will contribute to the revival of the town's precinct, which has a high proportion of empty shops.

DDC had bought the premises as part of its efforts to keep the precinct going among its other efforts such as renovation grants for the area's businesses.

The precinct over the last year has had to face a major competition on the form of the St James' Retail and Leisure park.

The large building taken by Co-Innovation had been an empty shell after the Co-op closed its branch there in February 2017.

It is also hoped to support high street shopping in the face of another pressure, rising internet purchases.

But Ms McKenna believes people will still always want to use shops.

She said: "This place, with small independent traders all under one roof, is just what people want. Small and artisan is on-trend and it's going to work here really well.

"People want to look with their hands. People want to come and have that shopping experience.

"As much as the internet is a great thing people want that Saturday afternoon experience to come and look, feel and buy and interact with the people they are buying from."

Other guest at the opening included John Angell, head to the business group Dover Town Team, DDC leader Keith Morris and town mayor Sue Jones.

Cllr Jones said; "It's now our job new to get people here and support the town centre.

"Here a building in a key location has been transformed. This will be a key driver towards town centre footfall."

Apprentice contestant Elizabeth McKenna with Jay Venner and Kym (corr) Billings, right, of the Get Lost escape rooms now based at Dover Co-Innovation
Apprentice contestant Elizabeth McKenna with Jay Venner and Kym (corr) Billings, right, of the Get Lost escape rooms now based at Dover Co-Innovation

Alan Sugar is as you see him on TV - no-nonsense and able to pick out bluff from candidates.

Elizabeth McKenna, 40, told the Mercury about her time scrutinised by the man dubbed Britain's most belligerent boss in the BBC TV reality show The Apprentice.

Ms McKenna, appeared in the 2017 coming fourth of the 18 contestants.

She said: "I've got so many fantastic memories of The Apprentice but I think the thing that gave me the most confidence is that Lord Sugar shook my hand and he doesn't do that very often.

"I must have done something right, that made me feel proud.

"Lord Sugar is an absolutely no-nonsense guy. He's a businessman with incredible skill and incredible intelligence and he sees through all the waffle. Trust me if you waffle, he knows about it and he will shut you down.

"I think the one thing he liked about me was I didn't waffle. When I said things I said things that made sense."

Ms McKenna, from Nottingham, entered the 13th series of the popular entrepreneur TV contest contest as the owner of three florist shops in October 2017.

She made it to the last five candidates but on the December 13 episode she was fired with two other candidates in the interview process.

Lord Sugar told her he could not see her scaling up from that at present but said people like her were the backbone of the economy.

Ms McKenna told the audience at Co-Innovation that the experience of the show had "changed her life" and she was still close friends with the joint winners of Series 13, James White and Sarah Lynn.

The Co-Innovation building
The Co-Innovation building

Elizabeth McKenna made it to Dover on time but some of her floral stock had been left stranded in Calais for nine hours.

She had told her audience that she was aware of the scale of the trade and movement going through the port.

But she commented: "Everything comes through you but my flowers have been stuck in the port of Calais for nine hours."

She later explained to the Mercury that her consigment had been affected by holdups from a docker's strike in France that day.

She said: "The French dock workers are striking and it's affecting businesses and the supply chains."

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