Two years after the launch of a campaign to create a Northern Quarter-style living boom in Preston city centre, the ambitious vision is starting to take shape.
City businessmen are pouring millions into projects including high-end apartments, luxury hotels and a variety of restaurants and bars.
Council leaders behind the City Living Strategy aimed to promote the city as “an attractive affordable alternative to Manchester and Liverpool”, and called for a new wave of high quality residential development across the city centre.
Now a swathe of development is underway, with investors keen to get onboard with the transformation.
“Preston is on the up and money is coming in”, said Max Walker-Williams, who is behind the city’s growing luxury hotel offering.
In 2017 Mr Walker-Williams opened No.10 Preston in Theatre Street, and seven weeks ago, launched a second luxury apart-hotel called The Winckley Square Hotel, in Camden Place, which has already welcomed celebrity guests and footballers.
Although not directly influenced by the council’s scheme, such is his belief in the vibrancy of the city, he is also investing in a new development of residential apartments in Glovers Court and is refurbishing Grade II-listed Gorst House in Winckley Square into high-end apartments with a gym.
“The Ribble Valley’s coming to Preston. In fact, Preston is the capital of the Ribble Valley, and it’s starting to look that way too”, said the father-of-three.
“You have all the best restaurants and bars and places to stay starting to come through, as well as the shops here and the connectivity.
“You don’t need to live, surrounded by fields, so enjoy good food any more.”
His decision to open a second apart-hotel in the city centre, as well as Flanagan’s Brasserie, with Jayne Flanagan, came after demand for the area’s only five-star-rated hotel.
He said: “We were turning people away, which is heart-breaking as a business”.
The launch night before Christmas, featured a movie-grade snow machine cascading snow down onto Camden Place, against a backdrop of the square’s first gas light in 140 years.
“It looked like something out of Dickens”, he said.
Max and his team are also responsible for last year’s Valentines’ Day stunt which saw hundreds of hearts sprayed onto pavements across the city centre, as well as dozens of red heart-shaped balloons.
When asked why, he said: “It’s about doing things to the greatest standard possible, without taking yourself too seriously.
“There are all these places in London and in Europe that are so serious and snobby, but times have moved on.”
But something he is serious about, is the future of the city centre.
He said: “It’s really coming on leaps and bounds. Progress has been slow at first, but one place opens, then another, and it’s only going to get better.
“If people have confidence in Preston, then it breeds confidence. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“If I’m investing in a project here, and people see that and think ‘if he’s got a bit of money then he must not be stupid’, so then they will think about opening a business too.
“It builds and builds, and then someone might think that a nice hotel will attract people who would like a nice boutiquey-type shop, and then another one opens.
“This transformation is happening, but it has to be organic, you can’t force it.”
As part of the City Living strategy, council leaders drafted in global real estate experts Cushman and Wakefield to advise on how to successfully deliver the kind of new homes people will want to buy, rent and live in.
Consultant Caroline Baker spoke of Preston’s “enviable parks”, attractive buildings, and facilities such as schools, which could help attract families into the centre.
She said: “We want to tap into the postgraduate and young professional market, but it’s not just about flash flats, it’s about somewhere for everyone to live. It’s not just about high rises, it’s about quality new builds and conversions.”
Mr Walker-Williams said he’s noticed a change in attitude towards investment in the city centre.
He said: “If you look at social media, or comments on articles, it was full of people saying ‘oh that’s a nice idea, but it’ll never work’.
“But now there’s been a real change. People are standing up and they are outshouting the haters and neigh-sayers.
“People can see that Preston is on the up and money is coming in.”