The man whose millions are revitalising Preston is eyeing up arguably his most stunning project yet.
The Post can reveal Simon Rigby, saviour of the Guild Hall, the old Odeon Cinema and Fives, is in the bidding to run the majestic Park Hotel – the fairy tale castle which dominates the city skyline from the south.
Mr Rigby is understood to be going head-to-head with a national chain to operate the luxurious new hotel, conference centre and spa when it opens its doors in 2018.
“We’ve been part of the tender process, but no decision has been made yet,” he confirmed.
“We very much hope to run the hotel. I think it is a beautiful thing and I think it is a fantastic opportunity for Preston and for us – but it’s not at that stage yet. We are still in a competitive position.”
Mr Rigby’s Villa Group, which also tried to buy Preston Bus Station in 2013, is believed to be on a shortlist of just two from the dozens who originally showed interest in taking over the Park when it is restored to its Victorian grandeur.
If his bid is successful it could mean the wealthy entrepreneur operating two large hotels just a mile apart in Preston – he was recently granted planning permission for a £10m 130-bedroom apartment hotel in the Guild Centre tower block which he now owns at the rear of the Guild Hall.
Both would serve a different sector of the market, with the Park due to undergo a lavish re-fit to provide 75 plush rooms in the original red brick building and a further 70 in a new extension following the demolition of an adjacent 1960s council office block once dubbed the “Monster of Miller Park.”
A new banqueting suite for exhibitions and major functions, catering for around 500 people, will also be built. And a Grade II Listed Georgian property in the grounds of the hotel, No 8 East Cliff, will be converted into a health spa.
The Park Hotel, which a century ago boasted Royalty and Prime Ministers on its guest list, has spent the last few decades as council offices and has been snapped up by Lancashire County Council’s pension fund in a sell-off of LCC properties. The fund aims to locate its headquarters in the new extension.
Mr Rigby insists Preston is “the most under-bedded city” in the country and can sustain three new hotels - another developer is also converting the old Post Office opposite the Flag Market.
“Preston needs this,” he said. “You can call yourself a city, but Preston has got to start acting like a city, behaving like a city and having the infrastructure that a city has got.”
The Park project is the latest to interest Mr Rigby since he returned to his beloved Preston from Yorkshire with “a few bob” in his pocket six years ago.
He admits he took over the Guild Hall in 2014 as a gesture to the city to save it from closure by a cash-strapped council. But the entertainment venue is now in a much healthier financial state and he is adamant he is no philanthropist - his investments have all been made for sound business reasons.
He bought the Fives nightspot in Guildhall Street in November after it had been closed since 2011. It is due to re-open this year with a London operator. He also has similar plans for the former Odeon Cinema in Church Street, again with a national company coming in to run it as a food outlet.
And he admits he is planning further investment in the city.
“I’m Preston mad,” he told the Post. “I was born in Warton, but I consider myself a Prestonian through and through.
“We have invested very substantially in an around Preston. We are very much at the hub of Preston city life. But I’ve got to say it isn’t an act of philanthropy on my part.
“We first got involved in helping the city council when they put the bus station and car park up for sale. We didn’t get that, but I don’t look back, I just go with the cards I’ve been dealt.
“I’m very, very happy with the outcome there, that LCC are spending a lot of money on refurbishing the car park. Now we have got the Guild Hall and the Guild Tower it’s very important to me that it is part of it and it will make it much more usable.
“This part of town is on a tremendous up. I think the whole of Preston is on an upward trajectory. What is happening here is joined-up thinking.
“If there were mistakes made in the past it was probably that everything was pinned on the Tithebarn project, without a Plan B. You must always have a Plan B and we are now in the midst of that.
“We remain Preston mad and we remain happy to invest further in Preston. And I’m very pleased that there are lots of other parties who are interested in investing in Preston.
“We would like to think that we are a small part of the catalyst which is taking place here in the city.”
Mr Rigby, made an MBE last summer for services to industry in the North West, laughs off talk he is seen as a Messiah by the people of Preston after all his recent investment.
“I don’t think my story is unusual in so much as I have been away, run a quoted company, had a successful business career and I have now come back to my roots and I want to do all I can to help my city.
“I’m pleased that we are able to help move the city forward and I very much appreciate the help of all Prestonians on this, because Preston has a lot to be proud of.”