Taking the long view

Richard Fee is playing the long game. While coronavirus is having an immediate and serious impact on the UK’s visitor economy, he is looking beyond the pandemic and well into the future.

The project director at Nikal, the development company behind the £300m Blackpool Central regeneration masterplan, points out that the game-changing programme is an eight to ten-year project. He adds simply: “We have a long-term view.”

That view is looking to create a world class visitor attraction and entertainment district on the prime 17-acre site that will attract up to 600,000 more visits a year with an annual spend of £75m and create up to 1,000 new jobs.

The vision includes the UK’s first flying theatre and fully immersive virtual reality experience, a 150-bed hotel, artisan food market, event square, residential apartments and a 1,300-space multi-storey car park.

It will be the biggest single investment in Blackpool for more than a century but it is not going to happen overnight.

The phased project is a collaboration between Manchester-based Nikal and Media Invest Entertainment (MIE), which owns the intellectual property rights to the book ‘Chariots of the Gods’, which will be the main theme for Blackpool Central’s attractions.

The two organisations have now signed the contract for the land release that will allow the masterplan proposals, first unveiled in December 2018, to get underway.

It means initial development work can start and a planning application submitted later this year for the construction of a 1,300-space car park. It will replace the surface parking that currently exists on the former railway station site.

This project is about the regeneration of Blackpool and creating jobs. And it is about creating an environment where people want to be, it can’t be an island

The first major phase of the project will incorporate several key leisure components, the food hotel and initial hotel.

Phase two is set to include residential apartments, further food and drink outlets and a second hotel comprising 250 bedrooms and landscaped public space.

More is planned after that but Richard isn’t going into too much detail as it is five years  away. A plan will be needed to free up the magistrates’ court and police station site.

Looking to the start of the work, Richard says: “We are not going to start building the car park for another 15 months. We have to replace the car parking before we do anything else. We don’t want to impact on the rest of the town centre.

“The planning application will be a hybrid application. A detailed application for the car park and outline concept on phase one and two.”

Design will be an important part of the project, including the look of the new car park. “It has to look interesting and it has to look right for Blackpool,” Richard explains.

Another important element of the design process is making sure the view of Blackpool Tower is protected, so visitors can see the iconic landmark from wherever they may be as they arrive in the resort.

Richard says a major London-based design studio with a global reputation is working on the project, and he adds: “Some of the design ideas we have got are just fantastic.”

Experts have also been drafted in to look at the mix of attractions that will occupy the space – the rides and virtual reality experiences that will entertain visitors allyear round.

The funding for the project will also come in stages – with a number of different packages on offer for would-be investors.

Richard says: “In terms of funding, no one was ever going to fund this in one go. The strategy of breaking it down to bite-sized chunks is still the way to go.”

He is confident about the future of the resort, saying: “We are of the opinion that Blackpool is about to go through a period of very strong change.

“The key to that is the local authority. They are very, very pro-active, they are very, very helpful. Blackpool Council is open for business.

“The council is showing ambition. They are very straightforward people to deal with. They have a desire to see the town improve and are realistic enough to know that ambitious projects take time.”

He adds: “We are having really detailed conversations with Blackpool about the scheme. We need to make sure it links into the town centre.

“This project is about the regeneration of Blackpool and creating jobs. And it is about creating an environment where people want to be, it can’t be an island.”

Richard also looks at other private investment that is coming to the resort. He says: “The Sands Hotel looking fantastic and there is private finance in there. Then there is the new Hilton at South Shore.

“If you have decent places to stay you will end up with people with bigger wallets coming to Blackpool.”

Norbert Reichart is chief executive of MIE. He says Blackpool Central is “going to have real ‘wow’ factor.”

“It is going to take the resort to another level. We really believe this will be an absolute gamechanger for the whole of the North West. We are looking to do something that is really world-class.

“This scheme will be beneficial for everyone in Blackpool. It will spark regeneration around the area.”

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