Council moves to quell fears over future of iconic department store

    Hoopers warn that theatre plan could put business at risk

    THE borough council has pledged to find a ‘workable’ solution with Hoopers after the department store warned that the current plans to build a theatre next door would threaten the viability of the business.
    In a strongly worded statement issued last week on the eve of a major council debate about the future of the £72million Civic Complex project, the department store indicated that hundreds of jobs could be in jeopardy.
    Their concern hinges on the use of their car park at the back of the store as an access route to the proposed venue, which Hoopers believes will adversely impact their customers and the wider business.In addition, they accuse the council of issuing a ‘threat’ to place a Compulsory Purchase Order [CPO] on the customer car park to achieve this access, warning it would have a ‘devastating effect’ on Hoopers’ ability to function effectively. A Hoopers spokesman said the top-endretailer has been ‘inundated’ with enquiries from customers, staff and members of the general public who are concerned about the theatre’s impact on the business.
    They added: “Hoopers believes that if the council’s planned access route comes to fruition, it would create an existential threat to the current operation and viability of an iconic independent retail business… [It will] affect not only the store in Tunbridge Wells but the operation of its three other stores in the group that rely upon services from this store.
    “The group itself provides employmentfor over 500 people, of which 170 are based in Tunbridge Wells.
    “Hoopers considers the design of the theatre should be capable of including the requisite access arrangements within the site and the existing street layout without threatening the viability of a significant local business and major retail employer.”
    When their position was read out during the Full Council debate on July 26, opponents of the scheme – which also includes new civic offices in Mount Pleasant Avenue – hailed it as a ‘mortal blow’ to the council’s plans.

    However, the Times understands council officials have been seeking to negotiate with the department store and that offers of financial redress are up for consideration – going down the route of a CPO would be an undesirable last resort.
    Money with which to negotiate an access deal is thought to be already included in the project’s costs.
    The council also hopes the increased footfall from hundreds of thousands of theatre goers annually can act as an incentive for businesses such as Hoopers to support the project.
    Under the present scheme, only two parking spaces out of 40 would be lost to the store, which is opposite the railway station.
    Hoopers recently decided to sell off its second car park inGrove Hill Road for residential development. A Tunbridge Wells Borough Council spokesperson said: “We very much value Hoopers as a local retailer and employer and welcome their support for the concept of a new theatre.
    “Our project team is working with Hoopers tounderstand their concerns and we will do whatever we can to accommodate them. Changes continue to be made to the scheme, the latest proposal results in the loss of just two car parking spaces.
    “We believe our scheme could be to Hoopers’ advantage in that it could provide better accessfor their deliveries. Many of the vehicle movements to the theatre would take place after retail opening hours.
    “We believe that they, like other retailers in the town, would benefit from the increased footfall that would come from offices close to their premises and the hundreds of thousands of people using the theatre.
    “We will continue to talk to Hoopers in the anticipation that we can achieve a solution that is workable for us both.”