Bid to breathe new life into the bottom end of Plymouth
A MAJOR retailer is in talks to open an outlet in the defunct Woolworths store, sparking fresh hope for the future of a troubled area of the city centre.
The new business has not been named but is described by one industry insider as a discount shop although others have said it is a "blue-chip multiple retailer".
If the deal goes ahead it could help revitalise the lower New George Street area which has been hit by a wave of shop closures.
The new store would not use the whole of the 180,000 sq ft, two level Woolworths site which has been empty since the retail giant collapsed in January 2009. Instead it would create a 15,000 sq ft ground floor shop only using the New George Street entrance. Agents marketing the building say there has been no interest in the Cornwall Street side of the vacant property.
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The stretch from the former Woolworths, once earmarked for a £40million skyscraper development, to the closed down Derrys store, has suffered the fall-out from a decline in retail fortunes nationally.
The strip has lost stores at one time occupied by famous brands including Currys, the Officers Club, Game, Hawkins Bazaar, and, in a 49,000sq ft unit, TJ Hughes.
Derrys, still owned by the Co-operative, is looking for someone to take its 139,000sq ft of floor space over five stories, and the shut Nectar restaurant covers another 5,700sq ft in the same block.
Yet the area is attracting interest and even one store, Shoe Zone, moving out of its unit, is only relocating to the larger former Currys store a stone's throw away.
And city centre manager Clint Jones said: "That strip still has the potential to be a vibrant shopping area. It's not all bad news."
He said a potential tenant for Woolworths was "really good news".
And he stressed that, unfortunately, empty units were inevitable under the current economic maelstrom hitting retail.
But he added: "There are moves to let them."
He said he has been approached by people "expressing an interest" in the Derrys and TJ Hughes buildings, both for retail and non-retail use.
He stressed: "The agents and landlords are actively managing the premises. We are managing this. It's not just happening to us."
And he said that the closures suffered in New George Street were all national chains and added: "Locally we trade well."
He said: "It looks worse than it is. It's the size of those units that make it look worse."
The Woolworths building was one of 807 British outlets which shut when the store went into administration with debts of £385million.
A year later Liverpool Victoria Asset Management Ltd (LVAM) submitted a proposal for a 23-storey student-flat skyscraper to be built on the site.
But, last year, The Herald revealed the plan had been thrown out by Plymouth City Council even though it had already been given conditional outline approval.
That condition was a Section 106 legal obligation involving a contribution from the developer of £327,000 to mitigate the impact on "transport, community facilities and health facilities", which was never signed.
LVAM told The Herald it intended to submit another plan, but nothing has been lodged and LVAM was last year acquired by investment firm Threadneedle, which was unable to confirm any plans for Plymouth.
With the development plans unlikely to proceed, the store is being actively marketed.
Ryan Kennedy, of Capital Retail, which is marketing the Woolworths site, confirmed talks were ongoing with a prospective tenant and an offer had been made.
The property consultancy's website describes it as coming from "a footfall-driving, blue chip, multiple retailer".
But Mr Kennedy was not in a position to give a name and was unable to give a time-scale either for when the new occupant could move in.
He said: "It's in discussion but there is no commitment whatsoever."
Breaking up the huge store was the only way of getting a tenant, Mr Kennedy said, particularly as there had been no interest in the Cornwall Street entrance to the building.
"It's a shame," he said. "I would like someone to take all of it but there is no demand."
He added: "If it was my home town I would want to see it with an active retail frontage."
Ray Robins, chairman of the Market Traders' Association and Cornwall Street Shopkeepers Association, said: "That bit of New George Street does look quite bleak."
But he too has been approached by people wanting to open shops in the West End and said: "I'm not saying we are doing well, but we are not doing any worse than the (Drake Circus) mall or anywhere else in the country. We're holding our own."
But he added: "What we need in this end of town is some form of anchor store.
"If John Lewis came into Derrys rather than Exeter we'd have no problems."
Olly Waters, manager of Shoe Zone, however, is convinced there is a future for lower New George Street.
The retailer is moving a few doors to the empty Currys plot in July – because it's bigger.
And Mr Waters said: "There's no way we'd move up town. The customers at this end of town do not venture up and Drake Circus customers do not venture to this end.
"It's a bloodbath out there for retail at the moment, hard for everyone," he said. "But we have a good customer base."
Lee Spencer, at the neighbouring Discount Store, said it will be shutting in the next few days, but said another tenant is due to occupy the space.
He blamed high rents and, particularly, business rates, and the lure of the mall.
"The town is going up the top because of the big centre," he said. "The multi-nationals are going into the mall. Either that or out of town."
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