A year after an arson attack caused a major fire in Corby town centre, work to fix the damage is finally complete.
Now town centre manager Dan Pickard has revealed how Corby is bucking national high street trends, with a record eight million shoppers coming to the town in 2015. And with the centre recording near-full occupancy rates, the town is about to be rebranded with new signage to mark the start of a major phase of development.
Mr Pickard said: “I can’t describe the feeling I had last January when I saw the flames.
“I could have stood there and cried. We had worked so hard for nearly 10 years to change people’s hearts and minds about Corby town centre.
“But afterwards everyone just pulled together to get back to business as usual.
“Our contractors Bowmer and Kirkland have been absolutely amazing. To come in on time for a project that size is outstanding.
“It’s been a really difficult year but it feels like we’re coming out of the other side now.”
Despite other high streets across the country struggling to fight off the threat of online retail and out-of-town shopping centres, business in Corby is booming.
There were 132,453 visitors in the second week of February – up from 121,500 in the same week in 2015. There was a nine per cent increase in footfall for the whole of 2015 compared to a decrease of 1.9 per cent across the country.
Mr Pickard said the reason Corby is doing so well is the fact it is a unique.
He said: “When I arrived here in 2007 there were only about 60,000 visitors a week. We put a great deal of work into cutting down on anti-social behaviour in the town centre and since then we’ve seen an 80 per cent reduction in incidents.
“We are helped by the fact there are not 30 or 40 landlords, there’s just us, and we take a real interest in promoting our flourishing independent businesses. My team are really passionate about the town and what we do here.”
Next is a plan to rebrand the town with distinctive gren signage and a new name – Corby Town Shopping – to bring the two main shopping streets together. Then comes the biggest project since Willow Place was built in 2005, with final demolition works to the bus station and building of two shopping units to create an access point to the town centre from a huge surface car park that will sweep around Elizabeth Street and Anne Street.
The project has stalled several times. It was hit by the economic downturn, then a planned Tesco store was pulled after the firm chose a site off Oakley Road. Then plans for a Vue cinema were abandoned after Corby Council began work on a rival cinema at the other end of the town.
But now Mr Pickard says work will begin imminently.
He said: “There’s a substation that serves Elizabeth Street in the remaining building on the bus station site so that needs to be moved.
“As soon as we get the go-ahead we will level the site and work can begin to build the new shops. The top level will be at the end of Market Walk with three lifts down to another unit at the car park level.”
The new surface car park will have 520 spaces to replace the 510 in the existing multi-storey, which will be demolished. Sovereign Estates, the town centre owners, will spend £30,000 giving the run-down multi-storey a temporary facelift to see it through to its demolition.
Local people have called for Marks & Spencer and Debenhams to open in the new units but Mr Pickard said the rival Rushden Lakes development means people have to be realistic about the brands that will work in Corby.
He said: “We have, in the past, sat around a table with some of the shops that people have mentioned, but Corby needs to be sustainable on its own. What Corby has survived on is its convenience and its independent retailers who are the backbone of the town centre.
“We have turned down retailers in the past if we don’t think they’re the right fit for Corby.”
A new coffee shop, restaurant and bar called The Glasshouse will open in March in the former Cafe Con Leche unit, which has been empty for several years.
And Mr Pickard says a lease should be signed within days for a national restaurant chain to open its doors in the former Rubix club in George Street, which was shut down last year. There is also a bridal shop opening in Spencer Court and a bookshop on the way too.
“The high street is far from dead,” said Mr Pickard. “It’s the way forward and I’m its biggest advocate.”