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Blackpool’s time to shine?

The blueprint will see four key outcomes achieved by 2030 – tackling deprivation, increasing employment, improving the town’s national perception, the creation and safeguarding of 10,000 jobs and growing the economy by £1 billion.

The Prospectus points to Blackpool being a buzzing, attractive town that residents are proud of, a vibrant business community and thousands of new jobs. It also wants Blackpool to be a 21st century leisure destination catering for everyone, whether they’re conference delegates, high-income tourists staying at award winning five-star hotels or younger audiences looking for a weekend away providing a range of cultural events and festivals.

And it seems the objectives aren’t pie in the sky – more like theatres in the sky. £300 million is set to be ploughed into redeveloping the 17-acre Blackpool Central location, where the Council wants to create world-class visitor attractions on the landmark site including the UK’s first flying theatre. The development will attract 600,000 additional visitors a year with a combined annual spend of £75m and in turn creating around 1,000 new jobs.

However, there are questions. With this major new investment, can Blackpool build on its national footing as the UK’s favourite seaside destination? Two of the resort’s leading figures from the leisure industry think the blueprint will help but the assets and attractions are in place and it will retain its number one status.

Michael Williams, managing director of Blackpool Entertainment Company which operates the Winter Gardens said, “The investment on the Central Station Car Park is a great boost for Blackpool and will certainly give guests another reason to visit the resort but the town already has an amazing collection of attractions including the Pleasure Beach and Sandcastle Water Park.

With the new development being open all year round it will inevitably draw guests to Blackpool during what are currently quiet months. “We’re also investing £28 million in a purpose-built Conference centre which will be the first development on the site in 80 years and it will be key to the economic benefit for many businesses across the resort.”

Merlin Entertainments Group’s head of Blackpool Cluster, Kate Shane, agrees the investment will help but highlighted the resort already competes on a national footing. “The existing visitor numbers of circa 18 million per year make the resort the most popular seaside destination in the UK and the density of offer in Blackpool underlines this.

“The world-class visitor attractions drive repeatability and the heritage and cultural offer adds to the compelling message Blackpool has. Merlin’s net promoter score for Blackpool is the highest across the UK, Europe and the USA and the new leisure investment will elevate perceptions of the resort and create new reasons to visit or rediscover Blackpool.”

Nick Payne, managing director of Nikal the developer behind the £300 million Blackpool Central project said, “Blackpool Central is a hugely important project for the town and the region. It’s taken almost two years and a lot of hard work to get to this point, but we know that the masterplan fully maximises the site’s potential and will deliver a unique and ground-breaking entertainment destination with global appeal that will help revitalise and underpin Blackpool’s growth and regeneration.”

The Council’s director of communication and regeneration, Alan Cavill highlighted the investment the town has already seen. “Over £570 million has already been invested in the past decade and new town centre schemes
in the pipeline will continue to transform and revitalise Blackpool.

These include the town’s first five star hotel and restaurant plus a further three centrally-located three and four star hotels, an extension to the Hounds Hill Shopping Centre, a new tramway extension connecting Blackpool North train station to the promenade, an IMAX-style cinema, refurbishment of key retail streets as part of a Quality Corridors Programme, a new Blackpool Museum and a vibrant mix of new leisure, retail and business opportunities throughout the town centre as part of the Town’s £1billion Growth and Prosperity programme.”

Commercial property partner and Napthens’ head of the Blackpool & Fylde office, Martin Long, agrees but also points out that the future economic development of the town and the Fylde Coast is not dependent purely on
tourism. “Blackpool and the Fylde has well established sectors in energy, aerospace and advanced engineering, advanced materials, food manufacturing and business, professional and financial services.

“The Blackpool Airport Enterprise Zone is probably the single most important development in the future economic regeneration of the town with the estimated creation of 5,000 jobs and it is the site of the new Lancashire Energy HQ.

“The Fylde Coast has three of Lancashire’s four enterprise zones, at the Airport, Hillhouse, Thornton and BAE Warton and these are critical to not just the Fylde Coast but the North West as a whole.”

With a long list of social and economic regeneration initiatives in place or about to start, there’s certainly a reason for investors to look favourably on the resort but is the infrastructure in place?

Andy Charles, Blackpool Pride of Place project leader believes it is in place and ongoing investment will support growth. “Blackpool is currently undergoing a regeneration of its public transport infrastructure, with the recent electrification of the lines providing direct links to Manchester, Liverpool and London and there is an ongoing extension of the tramway to Blackpool North Station to link the two redeveloped parts of the network.

“We also encouraged use of existing transport infrastructure initiatives such as the Park and Glide scheme for the Air Show in 2018 to remove congestion from Blackpool promenade. It transported 3,000 people from the airport to the central promenade over the weekend and we’ll continue to look for innovative cross-sector projects to enhance how Blackpool’s infrastructure is used.”

Alan Cavill added: “Blackpool does have the infrastructure and connectivity to cope with the added investment and is easier to reach than ever before. Drive times are also congestion and stress free. Situated 50 miles north west of Manchester at junction 4 of the M55, we are directly linked with the M6 and the rest of the UK motorway network.

“Not forgetting an extensive network of bus and tram routes operating throughout the rest of the Fylde Coast.”

While all the assets are in place to ensure Blackpool’s success, there is the issue of its reputation – a challenge highlighted in the Agenda for Action. Michael Williams argues that there’s already concentrated activity in this area. “Blackpool has lots of positives and we should concentrate on shouting about these.

“The Council and local businesses have worked together and have done a great job with improving the image of the resort. Blackpool’s Business Improvement District (BID) has initiated a multiagency approach to dealing with the challenges of the town centre and we are seeing the result of this – the resort is a cleaner and safer place to visit.”

Andy Charles also points to the work the Pride of Place Partnership is implementing. “We’ll undertake a hearts and minds campaign, initially locally and then nationally, to shift the narrative from Blackpool as a place with insoluble socioeconomic problems to a revitalised, regenerating hub of tourism and enterprise.”

However, Kate Shane added: “The press’ appetite for negative stories involving Blackpool is disappointing, especially when there is so much ‘good news’ to tell but Merlin and many others are undertaking campaigns to promote Blackpool.

The ‘Blackpool Has It All’ campaign delivered by Merlin, Blackpool Council and the Pleasure Beach is now in its sixth year and the activity reaches all parts of the UK via TV advertising, digital and social media campaigns and national PR stories.

“As a company Merlin invests significant amounts in marketing and awareness of our outstanding visitor attractions, to continually create reasons to visit the resort. We’ll continue to invest in campaigns to counter the misconceptions about Blackpool and raise awareness of the amazing experiences, attractions and events.”

Alan Cavill acknowledges that as an established seaside resort Blackpool inevitably has some well-worn stereotypes. “We’re fully committed to implementing the next phase of the £1 billion growth and prosperity programme; supporting and promoting positive shifts in the use of the town centre and developing a focused marketing campaign to attract business investment and challenge the existing perceptions of Blackpool.

“We’re also helping to create quality housing stock, creating new sustainable jobs, training and skills for younger generations and improving the overall quality of life for its residents and the local community. There’s a growing
sense of pride and energy in the town which will encourage and attract greater levels of inward investment for future success.”

Martin Long, who is also chair of the Blackpool Business Leadership Group, concluded: “Our members are extremely positive and confident about the future of the town and that is, to a large extent, down to how proactive our local authority is. It helps immensely when you have a Council that is driving positive change, and which breeds confidence and optimism.”

So, it seems that all the elements are in place for Blackpool to shine brightly – there are challenges but with driven and determined people from a range of organisations working to make the town a success, you can’t help feel the future does look very bright indeed.