VIDEO | Chester is ‘open for business’
Roundtable participants included Samantha Dixon MP; Cheshire West and Chester Council director Graham Pink; Legat Owen director Will Sadler; Donald Insall Associates chairman Tony Barton; outgoing Chester BID chair Katrina Kerr; and Chester Growth Partnership board member Andy Farrall. The discussion was chaired by Place North West editor Julia Hatmaker.
Read on to learn the business case for Chester. You can also see highlights from the discussion in the video at the top of this article, which is also available on the Place North West YouTube channel.
The walls are (metaphorically) coming down
Historically, Chester was a market town. Now, it has transitioned into a leisure destination with a vibrant residential offer. But Chester’s journey is far from over, according to the roundtable participants.
“Chester continually evolves – that’s the beauty of it,” said Farrall, who sits on the board of Chester Growth Partnership, an organisation that brings together the local authority, residents, and businesses to strategise about the city’s future.
Chester is also bustling, according to Legat Owen’s Sadler.
“If you go out in Chester on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night the place is absolutely rammed full,” Sadler said.
Dixon, who is the member of Parliament for the City of Chester, agreed and pointed out another factor in the changing face of Chester.
“I don’t think you should underestimate the value of the young people that come into the city thanks to the university,” she said. “I think that has transformed the city.”
The change has also been in the mindset of those who live and work in the city itself.
Chester BID’s Kerr said she had noted a change in the city’s psyche after Covid. She referenced a conversation she had at lunch, where her companion compared Chester and Liverpool. Liverpool, they contended, was a port and was open to the world, welcoming people with open arms.
By comparison, Chester was a walled city, inward-focused.
“What’s happening now, is Chester is breaking down the walls and starting to be much more open to ideas,” Kerr said.
A city with a plan
Chester has a vision for its future, which can be found in its One City Plan. This plan has recently undergone a refresh after a consultation that included the Chester Growth Partnership.
The goal is for the One City Plan to give investors confidence to do business in Chester, and the knowledge that the council is eager to work with them rather than against them.
“It’s important how we promote the city, but it’s equally important how we receive investors and the reception they get from both us as the council and the wider business community,” Pink said.
He continued: “I think it really is the right time for investors to come and talk to all of us in all our different guises, to come and see how exciting Chester is.”
The future of Northgate
Chief among those opportunities is the second phase of the council’s ambitious Northgate project.
The first phase – which includes a market, offices, and an 800-space car park – opened last year to much fanfare and has already attracted thousands of visitors. It has been a clear success story, according to Dixon.
“You could just take an investor into the market and say ‘this is what we can do,’” she said in relation to how to sell Chester as a development hotspot.
Phase two is still very much in the works, and the council is on the hunt for a developer to help take the further revamp of the 1960s shopping centre forward.
While details as to what phase two (and a possible phase three) may look like are slim, Pink did say it would unlikely contain much retail. Chances are that it would be more residential-focused, especially since the council’s initial soft market testing has shown there is an appetite for that.
“We are really interested in talking to investors who want to come into the city about the possibilities for phase two,” Pink said, acknowledging that any agreement would not be entered into lightly by the council.
“Because of the city’s heritage and because of what a special place it is, the bar is high and rightfully so,” Pink said.
He continued: “We’re custodians of the city for the future as well as the now. It’s important we strive for that quality.”
Northgate phase two is only one of several redevelopment opportunities available in Chester, according to the panel.
“There are plenty of opportunities if you know where to look,” Sadler said.
Those concerned that the focus on heritage could freeze development in Chester should only look to a recent project of Donald Insall’s Barton: a 162-bed hotel in the city centre that received planning permission last year.
The panel also noted that outside of the historic core, the city had lots of developments underway including the 1,300-home Kings Moat Garden Village and the 175-acre Cheser Business Park, both off Wrexham Road.
The council is also working with its partners on creating an investment prospectus for the city that will highlight where all these sites are.
“That will prove that the time is right,” Farrall said. “The sites are there, and they are ready.”
An inspiring acquisition
Those looking for more evidence that Chester is, in Sadler’s words, “open for business” only need to look to Martin Property Group’s acquisition of the Grosvenor Shopping Centre and the former Debenhams in the city centre last year.
Farrall pointed out that Martin Property Group’s purchase of the freehold, rather than just the leasehold of the building, was significant.
“That means they are here long term,” he said. “They have the ability to change, develop, redevelop, and invest in the place in a way that just buying a leasehold wouldn’t have made possible.”
Pink was optimistic about Martin Property Group’s future in the city.
“The way they have approached the acquisition, and how they want to be part of the infrastructure and city of the city and work with the council and other players within the city is really encouraging,” he said.
A city to live in
Chester’s appeal as a city to live in cannot be overstated, according to the roundtable.
“Chester is a European, must-see destination,” Barton said. “It’s a must-live, and a must-work destination as well.”
Farrall chimed in: “People can live and work in Chester. They can enjoy this place and the joy of going out of their office, sitting a coffee bar in the centre of Chester and watching this beauty unfold in front of them – it’s incredible.”
“And then walk home!” Barton enthused.
Farrall agreed. “You won’t get that in many places.”
Kerr pointed out that the schools in Chester offer a quality education as well, a sure appeal for those looking to raise a family in the city. There is also its strong cultural offer, she contended.
“All aspects of what people want from a great lifestyle are being thought about in Chester,” Kerr said. “I think we’ve got all the right bits of the jigsaw.”
Neil Hardy has been appointed to take over as chair of Chester BID from Katrina Kerr, who is stepping down after three-and-a-half years ahead of local elections in May, when she is standing for election. Hardy has worked as the head of e-commerce for Hays Travel, Co-op Travel and Icelolly as well as marketing and digital director for Shearings Holidays.
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