Published: 00:01, 23 June 2018
A total of £15 million will be poured into St George's Shopping Centre as part of a new deal to develop the town centre.
The Gravesend complex will hope to attract big names from retail and entertainment after Gravesham council announced a partnership with Reef Group.
Reef has now bought the centre and the wider £160m Heritage Quarter project from Edinburgh House (EH), which marketed the scheme for £16m last March.
As part of its plans a 'leisure quarter', consisting of four restaurants and a cinema, will be built fronting the area surrounding St George's Church, known as the Western Quarter.
More than 15 years after the project was first mooted, Stuart Bobby, director of corporate services at the council, is confident Reef — which has previously developed the centre's of Oxford and is behind the M&S in Sevenoaks — will deliver.
He said: "We have an agreement they won't lift a spade until three of the four restaurants and the cinema have a tenant in place.
"If you look at the whole development this is central to more than 300 new households that will be created and will be great for Gravesend's night time economy.
"What we're hearing from Reef is that it's been in contact with a number of cinema operators and there is a lot of interest there."
New shop fronts, signs and canopies are also planned for inside the centre, with Reef hoping to bring the likes of Nando's, Zizzi, Footlocker and Pandora to the town.
The deal differs from that signed with EH as the council will be an active player in the project.
On top of that, Mr Bobby says, Reef specialises in kick starting stalled public/private projects, whereas EH is more of an a asset management company.
The agreement will mean the council retains the freehold for the shopping centre and enters into a 50-year leasehold arrangement with pension provider Aviva.
Aviva, which is contributing the £15m, will then sub let the centre back to the council for an annual rent. After 50 years the council will have an option to buy the leasehold for £1.
Reef says it can develop the shopping centre and leisure quarter by September 2021.
It will be the first part of the wider development which Reef thinks it can complete by 2023.
Planning permission for the Western Quarter has long expired. Reef's vision for that site is to take EH's proposals for flats and create more public avenues, showing off the church and hopefully dealing with the concerns of Urban Gravesham, which previously lodged an unsuccessful legal challenge against the project due to its insensitivity to the historic town centre.
Permission for the Eastern Quarter, which is the car park behind the borough market as well as St Andrew's Gardens, doesn't time out until the end of March next year and aside from shortening some of the blocks of flats there are no planned changes.
Mr Bobby added: "Reef's proposals directly take into account some of the objections to the original scheme and look to address them."