Plans to use part of a long-empty Debenhams store for a ‘leisure and entertainment’ space have been revealed as part of a £3.1 million town regeneration scheme.
Ashford’s former branch of the retail chain has become a white elephant, with the vast unit in County Square shopping centre standing vacant for almost three years.
But proposals for a new occupier are now in the pipeline as the council looks to revamp areas of the town.
The bold vision – drawn up by regeneration experts Milligan – has been unveiled in a report to councillors who will discuss the scheme at a meeting on Thursday.
Documents state how the three-storey Debenhams unit, which originally opened in 2008, can become a “key attractor and anchor for the town centre” if redeveloped.
As part of the plan, the ground-floor section of the building facing Elwick Road could be converted into “outward facing, leisure entertainment use”.
The council hopes to coordinate its approach with County Square’s new owners, who took on the shopping centre in March.
The potential leisure and entertainment site would “complement” the activities on offer at the £75m Elwick Place leisure complex, which sits on the opposite side of the Shared Space zone but was hit by the recent closure of food and drink operator Macknade.
The Shared Space area itself – already undergoing £600,000 repairs – is also set for another upgrade, with the council planning to “further reduce the space given over to car”.
It wants to give more priority to pedestrians by improving walking and cycling infrastructure, as well as planting more trees and a grassy area.
“The approach is to further reduce the space given over to car and further increase the prioritisation of pedestrians,” council documents state.
“Urban greening is an important element and should be used to enhance the character and function of the space. Such a scale of greening would have a bold impact and would reinforce Ashford’s Garden of England identity.
“The adaptation of the former Debenhams building will be an important step in activating all four corners of the space.
“This large footprint building could become an anchor for indoor leisure uses, complementing the existing use character of this part of the town centre.”
Elsewhere in the town, a revamp of upper Bank Street is planned.
The council is to look at introducing a stretch of boutique food and drink units to “animate” the area.
Parking bays on the side of the road are proposed to be removed in favour of the new businesses, while public seating areas for outdoor dining will be introduced, along with trees and greenery.
In lower Bank Street, the overall aim remains relocating bus stops to open up the space, and enhancing the area around Bright City Church with public realm improvements, while the ground floor space under Trafalgar House could be converted into a restaurant.
Another main focus is to regenerate sections of Middle Row and the high street.
Documents state: “In the short term, the priority will be to make small interventions that reprioritise pedestrians and create a high-quality, green environment, encouraging people to enjoy the area.
“In the medium term, ABC should seek to purchase leading assets and work with existing owners to reposition Middle Row as the home for fashion boutiques, accessories and homewares.
“In public realm terms, the priorities revolve around removing vehicles, as far as possible.”
As for Lower High Street, vacant upper floors on the north side of the street are poised to be turned into offices.
Meanwhile, the future of the former Mecca Bingo hall remains unclear as ABC – which owns the site – continues its search for a tenant to take on the old cinema.
Cllr Nathan Iliffe (Con), the portfolio holder for regeneration and economic development, said: “To be successful, we must be brave, ambitious, and distinctive.
“This strategy and action plan is clear about what we stand for; it highlights what gives Ashford town centre its identity and how we can build on its strengths.
“And it intends to galvanise our community and stakeholders to help and support us in prioritising and delivering these actions over the months and years to come”.
An earlier version of this article stated the restaurant was planned for the former Debenhams building, not Trafalgar House. We are happy to clarify this.
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