It's four o'clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon and the Merrie England Bar at the entrance to Blackpool's North Pier is packed. Comedian Joey Blower has got a bride-to-be from South Wales up on stage and is asking her unmentionable questions about sheep. Two-thirds of the crowd looks as if it's just come back from fighting in Iraq.
It's loud. It's leery. And it is very, very beery. If this is the pier that Doug Garrett, chief executive of the regeneration company Re:Blackpool says traditionally attracts the "genteel" end of Blackpool visitors, I can't begin to imagine what's happening on the other two. Through the window, the sea is as blue as the jokes, and the beach stretches for miles. There is no-one, except a man and a dog, on it.
Here is a snapshot of the challenge that faces Blackpool. If it is to survive as a holiday resort, it must pull off a magic trick not yet seen in British seaside regeneration. Without alienating the devoted gangs of lads and lasses who come here to have a good time, it has to persuade middle-class families, Manchester trendies and affluent retirees to see that there is something for them too.
The Blackpool Task Force, set up to find a way forward after the failure of the super-casino bid in March, warns that Blackpool faces a crucial "tipping point" – if something isn't done soon, the town will slip into terminal decline: "If the public sector fails to make the necessary investment to regenerate Blackpool, it is projected that employment would decline by 4,300 to 54,600 by 2017, and that the employment rate would fall from 69% to 62%."
"There is research which suggests that more than 70% of people have visited Blackpool," says Garrett, who moved here with his family in 2005 after a hugely successful stint regenerating Belfast. "I came every year as a kid. I might be accused of wearing rose-tinted glasses, but I really believe that we can recreate the magic that Blackpool had back then." He adds that the research also found that amongst children and young people, the percentages that have visited Blackpool are dropping.
Garrett is such a passionate and personable man, you want it to work for him. But the hill he has to climb makes the Pepsi Max Big One in the Pleasure Beach look like the Ferris wheel in Toytown. Ideas to diversify Blackpool's leisure attractions include the People's Playground, which would transform three kilometres of the seafront into "a year-round urban park", and a national theatre museum in association with the Victoria & Albert Museum. Both projects await confirmation of funding.
"Blackpool identified casinos as a route to regeneration," says Garrett. "With a super-casino we would have had the means to attract more private sector funding into the town. Without it, it's going to cost the public purse a lot more money."
In August, Blackpool Task Force, a consortium of the North West Development Agency, Blackpool Council, Government Office for the North West, ReBlackpool and English Partnerships, reported that it is seeking to triple the amount of private and public sector investment. It believes that a staggering total of £3,351m in private and public money over the next 10 years is needed to fund a programme of vital infrastructure improvements as well as to develop higher education to attract students and create a "conference quarter".
Transport improvements include updating the tram system and investment in roads and the railway, which involves the creation of a new civic centre adjoining Blackpool North station at "Talbot Gateway". The Task Force also wants to establish "assisted area" status for Blackpool, which would allow inducements to be offered to tempt private investors into the town.
Blackpool's limbo has had a parlous knock-on effect on the property market. In September, the local paper The Blackpool Gazette, discovered £57m-worth of guesthouses and hotels up for sale. The average price of a property in central Blackpool is just £113,256 (source: Land Registry), compared to the Halifax's North West average of £152,503.
As Helen Rains, area manager for Halifax estate agency says, "this year the market has been rough". What really bothers her is the lack of new development coming through. "Developers just don't seem to have the confidence to start on a project," she adds.
Blackpool ranks as the 24th most deprived area out of 354 local authorities, according to a Select Committee report on coastal towns delivered in March. This is a seaside resort with the kind of deep-rooted social problems more usually associated with big cities: housing squalor, poor health, transience and multi-generational unemployment.
Blackpool Council's chief executive Steve Weaver told the Select Committee that many former guesthouses, turned over into houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), have "become such a magnet for dependant individuals and families across the country that we have landlords in Blackpool who place advertisements in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow inviting tenants to take up their accommodation."
Many locals say that whole streets of such dwellings should be flattened. But compulsory purchase orders won't happen unless investment is in place to pay off landlords and business-owners and replace the housing stock.
This is one of the reasons why Blackpool's story is much more complicated than the same old, same old about fading seaside resorts. The sheer size of the place is overwhelming: 142,283 people live and work here, many of them for cash-in-hand minimum wage jobs. Compare this to 91,404 in Southport or 48,227 in Morecambe. Weaver points out that of 120 single people who arrived in Blackpool last April only 5% arrived with a job to go to.
Garrett speaks of the need to turn Blackpool into a "regional centre" to bring in money from outlying towns. One of the major town centre projects, the extension to the Hound's Hill shopping centre, is attempting to do just that, with 56 new retail units, a food court and a Debenhams department store. It sounds impressive, but it looks like it has been beamed in from another planet.
The ultra-modern structure is shoehorned onto the end of a row of ancient shops and it makes the nearby Winter Gardens look even shabbier. It proves that for every new building or improvement project in Blackpool, there are a dozen more requiring immediate attention. This is as much a snapshot of the challenge that Blackpool faces as the swaying revellers in the Merrie England bar.
- Jayne Dowle is northern correspondent for The Times' Bricks and Mortar supplement