IT was supposed to be the gleaming answer to transforming a neglected and dilapidated corner of Southampton.
But a quarter of a century after it was built, the Bargate Shopping Centre is now at risk of becoming as much of a blot as the run-down buildings it replaced.
As revealed by the Daily Echo, the firm trying to sell the beleaguered complex on behalf of receivers has told tenants to quit the site in a bid to stem huge losses it is running up.
With the news that leading DVD rental chain Blockbuster has followed the likes of HMV, Jessops, Comet and Woolworths in calling in the administrators, it has raised fears for the future of retail on the high street – and with it the prospect of shops ever returning to the Bargate Centre.
Suggestions have been made that the three-storey complex could be converted to other uses, but council bosses and those selling the site remain confident it can continue as a retail destination.
Plans to develop the neglected former Cooper’s Brewery site, along with neighbouring York Buildings, into a new shopping centre were first mooted in 1984.
But by the time it opened five years later, the first signs of problems at the Bargate Centre were already appearing, after delays to the project and the scrapping of an ambitious second phase of the scheme, which would have seen it extend covered shopping onto Queensway.
As early as 1990, just a few months after opening, storekeepers were moaning about a shortage of shops and shoppers at the complex.
In 1996, church leaders reacted with horror to a saucy Christmas grotto at the centre, which featured scantily-clad Santas handing out sex toys as gifts.
And there was further controversy a year later, when bosses at the centre found themselves at the centre of an “ageism” row after an advertising poster campaign featured the warning: “If you’re too old, you’re not coming in.”
But it was not all bad news, as by 2000 many more shops had been successfully let, with the middle level completely full at one stage.
However, as the notices to quit were sent to tenants, there were just 11 units occupied – and some of those were being used rent-free.
The chief executive of Hampshire Chamber of Commerce, Jimmy Chestnutt said he believes the Bargate Centre could have uses away from retail.
He said: “This is clearly not good news, although perhaps not altogether unexpected given the retail climate at the moment, but nevertheless devastating for the companies that are trading out of Bargate and we would hope they will be able to relocate quickly.
“We hope the receivers manage to find a buyer who will restore that area to some degree of prosperity.
“The businesses themselves are clearly not the problem and not in trouble, it’s the centre itself, so it's not necessarily doom and gloom.
“The site itself may find a new lease of life in an entirely new direction It is very close to the civic centre and the cultural quarter, and there may well be other areas to which it is well suited.”
One Daily Echo reader has raised the prospect of the Bargate Centre being the “ideal place” to house the city’s maritime and aviation museum, Aeronautica.
It had been hoped the £8m attraction would be housed at the Trafalgar dock as part of the redevelopment of the entire waterfront.
However, Arthur Jeffery, the acting chairman of the City of Southampton Society, said he believes the Bargate Centre is best left as shops, albeit with improved access to Hoglands Park and the council’s plans to link the Bargate itself with the remaining medieval walls.
But whatever happens, he said the society is keen to keep the building formerly used by Jongleurs, as an example of art nouveau architecture.
Mr Jeffery said: “Jongleurs is a very typical 1930s building and we are keen to keep that. It was the Red Cross centre for the American troops in the war, and I think any new development should incorporate that.
“It’s got to be financially stable, so retail is the most obvious solution.
“It’s still the sensible thing to do, but with access to the walls. It’s a balance between heritage and retail and they could go hand in hand if dealt with sensitively.”
Southampton City Council leader Richard Williams said he too believes the site should remain as retail, and said he hopes the site could benefit from a successful bid for a share of £1.5billion through the Government’s City Deal scheme.
He said: “It certainly is a strategic site in the city centre.
“With the problems we’ve seen with Jessops and HMV there’s obviously a serious crisis on the high street, and that is replicated with the Bargate situation.
“We’ll be looking at the other options but retail is certainly our preferred solution, because to lose that would be a real tragedy.
“We want to look through other options we’ve got through City Deal. There’s a core package which is given to all successful bidders, and there’s the bespoke bit, which is certainly worth exploring.
“I will be talking to (Local Government Minister) Mark Prisk on Monday, and I will discuss it with his civil servants.
“This is the sort of thing that could go into a bespoke element of our stalled sites proposal and that may be a way forward for responding to the challenges the Bargate gives us.”