Developers are hoping public spending on infrastructure improvements in Bolton town centre will help accelerate the recovery to full health.
Simon Bedford, partner at Drivers Jonas Deloitte, conducted a study of Bolton as part of its Greater Manchester Town Centres report, which it completed for the Commission for the New Economy. Bedford said: "Bolton is one of Greater Manchester's star performers and it has weathered the recession well. It has wisely opted to diversify its development strategy rather than to just focus on a single big ticket scheme.
"Investment in its university has been key with new facilities and student accommodation being built in the town centre. The development of its Innovation Zone has also acted as an engine for further growth.
"One of the central recommendations of our study was the need for town centres to develop a comparative advantage, such as Bolton has done through fostering a knowledge based economy. As a result, the town is well positioned grow during the next economic cycle."
The 165-acre Innovation Zone is a mixed-use, leisure and knowledge-led development, forecast by the council to create 4,000 jobs and attract £300m of new private and public sector investment into the town over the next 10 years.
One of the core elements of the Innovation Zone is the Knowledge Campus, comprising the expansion of the University of Bolton and the co-location of Bolton Community College and Bolton Sixth Form College. The Learning and Skills Council gave the go-ahead, in March 2009, for three new college buildings, costing £90m in Bolton. Construction by BAM Construction both colleges is well advanced with the projects due for completion and in September this year.
Bolton One, a £31m health, leisure and research centre is also now on site. The project is shared by Bolton Council, NHS Bolton and the University of Bolton with the council contributing around £11.6m; the PCT has allocated £11.8m in financing for the development and the university £7.4m. Bolton One will include an eight-lane, 25-metre competition standard swimming pool with seating for 250 spectators; a fitness suite; aerobics studio and community gym; an urgent care, diagnostic and treatment centre and sports science laboratories and teaching facilities. The project is due for completion in early 2012.
The council is also investing around £6m in constructing a major new link road between Moor Lane and Trinity Street to assist delivery of the Town Centre Transport Strategy and open up access to development sites within the Innovation Zone.
Transport chiefs have agreed to fund part of a major £4m overhaul of passenger facilities at Bolton train station, on Trinity Street. The scheme is being managed by Network Rail as part of the Department for Transport's National Station Improvement Programme, and it has been developed with partners at Bolton Council, GMPTE and Northern Rail.
Meanwhile, a stable of Bolton-based private developers – Orbit Developments, Hurstwood Holdings, Charles Topham Group among them – are waiting for occupiers to take up the slack in supply and values to rise again before even contemplating further speculative development.
Orbit Developments, whose 1.15m sq ft Middlebrook office, retail and leisure scheme has dominated Bolton for the past decade, has 120,000 sq ft left to build out. On the Parklands office element next door to Middlebrook, Orbit built a 48,500 sq ft office as far as the shell of the building to avoid paying empty rates, a sign of the times. It would take a 50% pre-let to finish the job.
Simon Clarke-Williams, director of Orbit Developments, said occupancy levels in the 420,000 sq ft of offices completed at Middlebrook/Parklands have held up well in the recession. The loss of Loanmakers has been the only big casualty on the out-of-town park.
Mark Carling, sales director of Hurstwood, said there is 7,500 sq ft remaining out of 20,000 sq ft at its Navigation Park, one mile from the town centre. Being as flexible as possible on rents and incentives is key to getting occupiers in and keeping pressure up for more supply to be needed, says Carling.
Agents and developers agree the management deal with Regus on two floors of Gordon Moon Properties' 120 Bark Street, completed one year ago, is an overdue piece of action in the town centre. Justin Rouse, associate partner at P3 Property Consulting, agents on Navigation Park and Lostock Office Park in Bolton, said: "There is no tradition of companies taking Grade A space in the town centre and many tend to go out of town or stay in a series of large converted houses on the outskirts. Maybe if some small firms move into the Regus centre they will get a taste of modern space and when it comes to grow on they will be looking for larger offices of their own. The market just needs to make sure there is product for when that time comes."