Marks and Spencer has confirmed it will be coming to Chorley as part of the town’s Market Walk shopping development.
The retailer signed up to the project just minutes before a meeting of the borough’s full council - at which the news was greeted by cheers from the ruling Labour group.
-->READ MORE: M&S signs deal for new Chorley store
Announcing the contract, council leader Alistair Bradley said: “[M&S] know the value of our residents, they know the value of Chorley to their business and they know what we can deliver - because we get on and deliver it.”
The commitment to open an M&S Foodhall in the extended centre brings to an end the on-off saga over the firm’s involvement in the scheme.
The company had appeared to withdraw from the development when it began a wider review of its operations late last year. It has been re-negotiating its involvement since January.
Conservative opposition leader Alan Cullens - who has been a critic of the overall project - welcomed the deal. “I suppose I should say congratulations - and I’m happy to do so,” he said.
But before the last-minute announcement about M&S, Cllr Cullens had already laid down a motion demanding a forecast valuation of the site and projections of its rental income up until 2024.
Deputy leader Peter Wilson told him that it would be “stupid to speculate” so far ahead and that no auditor would do so.
Cllr Wilson did reveal that the Market Walk site is currently valued at £20.4m and is expected to make a total profit for the council next year of £1.5m.
He said that “market-orientated” rents, together with borrowing levels to fund the extension, could see that profit fluctuate in future years. But he added that income from the existing centre, since it was purchased by the council, has been equivalent to an 18 percent hike in council tax.
Cllr Cullens later agreed to withdraw his call for an official assessment of the scheme’s viability before work continues.
Confirmation of Marks and Spencer’s presence in the precinct, together with the Reel Cinema chain and a heads-of-terms agreement with the restaurant and bar outlet Loungers, means just under half of vacant space in the new centre has been filled.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Bradley appeared sanguine about increasing the occupancy level, with less than 18 months until the extension opens.
“The days of shopping centres being full from [the planning stage] have gone. I think retailers are more cagey these days, so we have to show faith,” he said.
Cllr Bradley added that the centre had been designed to attract a local market. “It’s not about dragging people from halfway across the North West - it’s about Chorley people shopping and spending their leisure time in Chorley.”
Cllr Cullens, also speaking after the debate, welcomed “a shift from retail to leisure”. But he questioned whether Market Walk could compete with retail developments planned for nearby Botany Bay and on the Cuerden site in neighbouring South Ribble.
A recent report by consultants Deloitte warns shopping centre owners of waiting for a upturn “which may never come”. But it also says those with strong “anchor tenants and leisure facilities, such as cinemas, [will become] go-to ‘experience’ destinations”.