The place where I spent six years of my working life has gone into administration. The Brooks Centre in Winchester was home to my shop until 2013. I found it hard to make a living there because of the high rent, not to mention the punitive business rates. So did many others. It won't surprise many people that it's up for sale.
So what does the future hold for this 'white elephant'? Chris Turner, CEO of Winchester Business Improvement District, suggests it could become a Covent Garden style retail-cum-leisure centre. Good idea. I have never seen Winchester as a shopping destination, in the sense that people don't travel a long way to shop in the city, except to the Cathedral Market at Christmas.
Because of the rise of online shopping and WestQuay style centres, I see the future of most city centres as more of leisure than shopping destinations. Winchester has a head start. It already has a heavy programme of festivals to supplement the permanent attractions of the Theatre Royal, Everyman Cinema, many restaurants and, of course, its historic buildings. One can easily see The Brooks offering a performance space, restaurants and other all day and evening activities. Its advantages of being secure, under cover and having parking could really come into play for activities after dark.
Only time will tell whether all the new shops that will arrive with the Silver Hill development will find sufficient customers, but it's one more reason why The Brooks has a doubtful future as a shopping centre.
So what are the chances of The Brooks becoming the Covent Garden of Winchester? Remote, I fear. Firstly there's the fact that it's the owners of The Brooks who have gone into administration, which means that there are five other properties that will probably be sold as a package along with The Brooks. So a property owner rather than a leisure/retail company will be the likely purchasers.
Then there's the reason why the owners of The Brooks went into administration. The administrators KPMG explained that 'the value of the (property) portfolio in relation to the security has fallen'. If The Brooks has a more sensible valuation, presumably this would allow for lower rents to be charged which in turn could mean it could be filled with shops that are able to make a reasonable profit. in which case, there would be no need for a change of direction.
Even if a more imaginative owner acquired The Brooks, there would be other obstacles to The Brooks becoming a successful leisure centre. Not least Winchester City Council. A change of use from retail to restaurant requires permission and we know how difficult that has been in the past. And it's the Council who would have to agree to extend the parking hours. Also, I know from when I was a Brooks tenant how difficult the Council are about agreeing to use the anonymous exterior of The Brooks to advertise what is happening on the interior.
It all needs imagination. Unfortunately, that's something that has been in short supply when it comes to The Brooks.