With the Mill Gate Shopping Centre under new ownership, and The Rock reaching capacity, Place North West visited Bury to take the pulse of a retail scene that the council says is drawing in 20m shoppers each year.
Footfall across the town's core is spread between The Rock, Mill Gate, the Market Hall and Bury's high street. The Rock is a fashion-led shopping centre with a leisure arm occupied by Vue cinema, a bowling alley and nine restaurants. Across the town, Mill Gate is let to discount retailers, independent local traders and cafés.
The 400,000 sq ft Mill Gate was sold by Scottish Widows to InfraRed in June for £52m, following a series of occupier exits relocating to The Rock after it was opened by developer Hammerson in 2010.
According to Paul Nolan, director of Bury-based agency Nolan Redshaw, The Rock shifted the main axis of the town eastwards, with big retailers such as Marks & Spencer vacating Mill Gate to take space in the new centre. Since then, Mill Gate has struggled to define its role within the Bury retail scene.
"Scottish Widows did good things for Mill Gate, but it had done all it could, and it was time for an entrepreneur buyer. Mill Gate now needs to reinvent itself and define its offer, with higher quality local operators."
New tenants in at Mill Gate
Marie Gribben, manager of Mill Gate, moved into the post shortly after the change of ownership and is keen to maintain a sense of consistency for Mill Gate occupiers. She grew up locally, so is well aware of the challenge Mill Gate faced when The Rock was first completed "as shoppers' curiosity shifted to the other side of town".
"However, now footfall has come back to the levels seen before The Rock opened," said Gribben. "New owners and agents are taking a position approach to lettings – we have 140 units, around 14 are vacant but two of those are in serious negotiations."
There have been a series of new occupiers into Mill Gate over the last few months, with Peacocks, Hawkins Bazaar, Fone Customize, Urban Menswear, Yours and Roman Originals opening in the centre. Santander has completed a refit, while Costa Coffee has moved into a bigger unit.
Understanding Mill Gate's position in the Bury retail scene is the key to success, according to Keith Butcher, director of real estate at Mill Gate owner InfraRed, said: "Residents of Bury use the town for their daily shopping. Mill Gate appeals to a broad demographic, who want quality and value and appreciate a covered environment. Mill Gate does not cater for high end fashion like The Rock – that is more of a discretionary spend."
In many ways Bury Market is the main anchor for Mill Gate, although it falls under separate ownership. The Market Hall and Fish & Meat Hall are open all week and attract a steady footfall, but it is the market days on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday that have the real pulling power. Up to 50 buses of tourists are driven in from across the North and as far away as Carlisle, according to Gribben.
No ghost town
Outside of the shopping centre, the general mood around the town is a positive one. Even at typical off-peak periods such as late morning or mid-afternoon, Bury is no ghost town and there's a broad demographic of people out in the streets, from students, families and the retired.
"Around Bury, there are not masses of empty units, and it doesn't suffer the same level of churn as other towns," said Nolan. "Bury is very merchant-like and business orientated, and it has not seen the high unemployment and same level of deprivation as in other towns. It is helped by a business-like local authority, which is open to deals."
It has taken Bury some time to adjust to the presence of The Rock, which brought an influx of chain shops and restaurants to the town. US investor Kennedy Wilson is the current owner, after it acquired the debt on the site in 2012.
The popularity of the shopping centre has seen a turnaround in recent years according to Nick McAllester, director at Tushingham Moore and agent on the scheme. "There were always question marks over The Rock, with the timing of the opening mid-recession. There were a lot of empty units and space, and questions over whether a town like Bury could support two shopping centres.
"Now it's a really positive market. All of the fashion units do well and this underpins the scheme."
The Rock is almost fully-let, said centre director Arnold Wilcox-Wood, and its future popularity looks secure.
"Thirty years ago, Bury was not a retail destination, and now it is one of the top five in Lancashire," said Wilcox-Wood. "The Rock is enjoying a 98% occupancy, with the remaining units let or to be used for shopper facilities."
Wilcox-Wood explained that with The Rock at capacity but no expansion space, the focus was on consolidating gains and providing more for customers, with work now on site to increase car parking and install new toilets.
The 408-apartment residential scheme above the retail units is nearing completion after stalling for a number of years. The 200-home first phase of the development was completed by Miller Homes and sold, but since Kennedy Wilson's acquisition of the centre in 2012 the units are being built by Bardsley Construction and let by Belvoir. A batch of 66 apartments are due to be fully let by Christmas, while a final block of 158 flats are due to be released to the market in April.
The leisure side of the Rock is fully-let, with the Vue cinema, a bowling alley and restaurants all trading well, according to Wilcox-Wood. While a second leisure phase has been earmarked for the former Sol Viva club site with permission for four restaurants, market experts maintain that a complete pre-let would be required to get it off the ground.
Wilcox-Wood was adamant that there was no tension between The Rock and Mill Gate, in fact, their success was symbiotic.
"Mill Gate is the traditional heart of the town, with a very famous market that has 400 units all let. It brings in a vast number of visitors, alongside Bury's cultural offer, the museums, and Lancashire fusiliers all within half a mile.
"This is what 'Bury Plc' is all about. We need The Rock to be successful, and Mill Gate, and individual retailers. It's us versus the rest – we want to take Mill Gate along with us, and vice versa."
Wilcox-Wood's passion for his home town was obvious, as he insisted that Mill Gate's change in ownership would only mean good things for Bury: "People leading Mill Gate and The Rock are very interested in their acquisitions and investing more money in the asset. Bury has resurrected itself from a run-down mill town, and the town has come together, and pulls together."