Can central Dover’s decline be stemmed by opening of £53m St James development?

How the £53m St James retail complex and the redevelopment of Dover’s Old Town can intertwine to increase footfall in the town centre is one of the biggest questions facing the future of Dover, but complaints about the state of the High Street are continuing to mount.

Almost a quarter of the shop units in Dover High Street are currently sitting empty as the council attempts to rejuvenate the town centre following the new retail park down the road.

Out of a total 87 town centre retail units, 20 are empty with another store holding a closing down sale and another with a to let sign up.

In January, the council announced plans to pump £500,000 into the High Street to transform it into a “thriving Old Town”.

This will include upgrades in the link area between the town and St James, the improvement scheme for the Market Square being re-ignited, new signage, property owners in the town being forced to keep their premises in good repair and a business rate relief scheme possibly being launched.

Council chiefs and developers stated that footfall increased sharply due to the opening of St James but some local independent businesses were not so enthusiastic.

The £53million retail complex was years in the making after the area was first identified as the best place to have a major retail park back in 1997 and St James finally began a phased opening on March 9 of this year.

According to Springboard Footfall figures, compiled for the council, the amount of people visiting the town centre, excluding St James, rose by almost 60 per cent.

The number obtained from an electronic counter in Biggin Street, contrasts the end of January, prior to St James opening, with weekly average data from mid-April.

This included a week when footfall surged by 77 per cent compared to the start of 2018.

David Todd, of Queens Garden’s, said: “There’s something not quite right with this town. It’s sad but there’s been lots of changes.

“It’s all about business rates and who sets them. They need to be lower if they’re going to stand a chance of attracting new traders.

“Empty shops is a sign of the times unfortunately like most other high streets. They still seem to be struggling against online shopping. The internet has obviously had a big impact and that’s reflected across the country.

“I don’t see high streets ever being the same as 50 or 60 years ago. Things have changed.”

Terry Lines, of Beaconsfield Avenue, said: “I’ve seen a few changes in my time. It’s just got 100 per cent worse. People don’t really want to come down to Dover. I normally go to Deal or Canterbury.

“There’s so many empty shops. I think the St James place is a waste of money because it’s just moved everyone out of the High Street down to there. I’ve been down there for Nando’s but nothing down there is better to be honest.

“I know they’re talking about doing something to the old Co-op which will be good. Maybe the council could lower their business rates to help new people coming into the town to try and regenerate it.

“I think Dover’s got a bad name now. Everyone just passes through, even the cruise ships. They need to smarten up the shops so they look as if they’re ready to let out.”

Dover District Council is to offer grants of up to £10,000 to bring commercial properties back into use, or to upgrade or improve the appearance of empty premises in designated town centres areas in Dover, Deal and Sandwich.

The grants can be used towards the external renovation or improvement of ground floor and upper floors on the front elevations of buildings, along with internal fit-outs and conversions. They cover up to 50 per cent of the cost of the project up to a maximum of £10,000.

Grants of £500 will also be made available for business support or consultancy for property owners seeking specialist advice on bringing their building back into commercial use.

Cllr Keith Morris, Leader of Dover District Council said: “High streets across the district are showing resilience in the face of online competition and changing consumer tastes.

“Deal and Sandwich continue to have low vacancy rates, whilst Dover is attracting new investment.

“However, empty commercial premises paint a poor picture.

“This scheme is designed to support owners of commercial buildings who want to improve the appearance, occupancy and use of vacant and run down properties in Dover, Deal and Sandwich.”

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