Published: 09:02, 19 December 2014
With planes almost certain to never fly from Manston airport again, its new owners are preparing to reveal their plans for the 800-acre site.
Trevor Cartner and Chris Musgrave are two of the highest-profile commercial property owners in Kent but they must also be the most approachable.
There was no fanfare as I walked into the “hub” at the top of Innovation House in Discovery Park, where they cut deals for premises with multi-nationals down to one-man-bands.
The pair have transformed the site near Sandwich into a thriving economic centre just two and a half years after buying it.
This month it announced its 100th tenant, a US medical device company called Quvium. More than 2,200 people work on the site.
It is a remarkable feat, considering the gloom after drugs giant Pfizer, its previous incumbents, decided to close its research and development facility, at a cost of more than 2,400 jobs (it actually remained at the site in a scaled back form, still employing about 700 people).
Their latest acquisition, the site of the former Manston airport, has caused quite a stir.
On the one hand, business leaders have hailed the takeover. They plan to transform the 800-acre site with a £1bn redevelopment over a 20-year period into a mixed-use scheme helping to create more than 4,000 jobs.
On the other hand, there are significant opposition groups who want to see it reopened as an airport, including local MP Sir Roger Gale.
They supported proposals by a US consortium, RiverOak, to reopen the site as a mainly cargo-based operation.
That plan depended on Thanet District Council buying the site using a compulsory purchase order, a possibility which no longer appears to be a likely. The cabinet voted against pursuing such a move last week.
With no looming legal battles ahead, at least for now, Trevor and Chris’ attention has turned to what they will do with the Manston site in future.
They plan to announce a new name in January and enthusiastically outlined their vision to turn it into a hub for manufacturing businesses in the same way Discovery Park serves firms in the science and technology sector.
The pair have previous form, having made their name in the commercial property world with the renovation of 700-acre Wynyard Park, near Middlesborough.
Despite their success in the North East and Kent – and testimonials about their friendly nature and helpfulness from tenants – both exercise caution regarding their public profile.
In truth, Trevor and Chris have been reluctant about doing an interview, especially after seeing how certain sections of the community went after Ann Gloag, the former Manston owner.
She was the subject of a huge backlash when she announced she was going to close the airport earlier this year and conducted all dealings at arm’s length.
Trevor and Chris have also been the subject of attacks on social media since buying the site, particularly from one blogger who questioned their credibility. They took legal action.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” said Chris, in his Hartlepool accent. “It is when people start becoming rude or tell lies that it upsets us.”
The pair dealt personally with Ann Gloag on the acquisition of Manston, which was announced in September.
“I thought she was a very nice woman,” said Durham-born Trevor.
“She is not dissimilar to us. She has got a reputation which is probably largely undeserved but she’s a successful business woman and we find her very personable. I like her. Many people would like her if they met her.”
Did she deserve the outburst of vitriol against her for closing the airport, which she did in May just six months after she bought it?
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I’m sure she would say the same thing, as long as they don’t start being malicious and spread lies,” added Trevor.
“She is strong enough to understand people have an opinion and she respects that.”
The first person they told about the purchase of the airport was Laura Sandys, the Thanet South MP, and the second was Sir Roger Gale, who represents Thanet North.
“It was brief,” said Trevor of the conversation with the Conservative veteran. “He said if you want to open as an airport you will have my support and if you don’t then you won’t
be able to count on my support.
“I said I understood that was his position but I wanted him to hear it from me before it got in the press. He said ‘ok, for that, I thank you’.”
The straight talking pair have made it clear from the outset they have no intention to reopen Manston as an airport.
It was offered to them for £1 a few years ago, when New Zealand-based owners Infratil were touting it for sale, long before it was bought by Ann Gloag.
“We remember sitting here and looking at the prospectus but we didn’t want to buy an airport,” said Trevor.
“That is what perplexes us now about other people wanting to buy it. I am puzzled that they didn’t want to buy it two years ago when it was openly for sale.
“It was clear to us that it was a loss-making airport. We are not business turnaround people. It didn’t cross our mind.”
Chris added: “What we can’t understand is we are talking about a huge investment into this site. If we weren’t here it would just be sitting there.
“However, we have got the local MP, Sir Roger Gale, who doesn’t want it to happen.
“We normally get supported by political figures. They are normally rolling the red carpet out in terms of delivering jobs and investment.”
What attracted them to the Manston site?
“We want to create Kent’s biggest business park but we have been criticised for saying it will take 20 years. We would have been lying if we said anything else..." - Manston owner Chris Musgrave
Trevor said: “It is fantastically well located. It is near the HS1 line and hopefully in the future there is going to be a station very nearby.
“It is very close to what we are doing at Discovery Park and we are actually beginning to run out of space on this site.
“This is primarily a science and business park and we don’t really have room for big manufacturing facilities or warehousing facilities.”
Chris added: “We want to create Kent’s biggest business park. We put a huge investment up front.
“The sort of projects Trevor and I get involved in don’t make any money for the first eight to 10 years. We have been criticised for saying it will take 20 years.
“We would have been lying if we said anything else. Even if that site is one of the most successful in England, it will take 20 years because of its sheer size.
“We are not hit and run merchants who want to make a quick buck and disappear. What we want to do will take time.”
A glimmer of hope remains for airport supporters following a meeting in London between Thanet council leader Cllr Johnston, acting council chief executive Madeleine Homer and transport minister John Hayes.
The council cabinet unanimously passed a recommendation for information to be released by RiverOak to the Department of Transport for further review.
Cllr Johnston said Mr Hayes considered Manston “of great economic importance” and “a national asset”.
Thanet North MP Sir Roger Gale said: “We have created the sensible opportunity for the papers to be reviewed by senior government officials.
“I have obtained the consent of RiverOak for their confidentiality agreement with TDC to be waived so that a fresh eye can be cast over the entire procedure.”
A RiverOak spokesman said the company "is naturally disappointed" with the cabinet's decision not to pursue a CPO.
RiverOak added in a statement: "We welcome the Department for Transport’s offer to review our submission to underwrite all Thanet District Council’s financial and legal risks relating to the CPO of Manston airport and our business plan for the airport’s future.
"We have waived confidentiality to allow this to take place and will make ourselves available to provide any further information, or answer any questions the government may have.
"RiverOak remains wholeheartedly committed to becoming the council’s partner and we are confident that the DfT review will satisfy the council of our suitability so that we may refocus our joint efforts on reopening the Manston airport as soon as possible."
Read moreBusiness NewsConstruction & HousingPeople & EmploymentSandwichThanetTransportTransport & Logistics
More by this authorChris Price