And so it was that only days after first thinking that rugby commentator, Eddie Butler, would be an ideal person to narrate a video about the new Friars Walk shopping centre in Newport, Stuart Harris found himself in a West End pub where the ex-Wales international also happened to be having a pint. “I just had to go over to him and explain about the project and ask if he might consider doing the voiceover,” recalls the co-founder of Queensberry Real Estate.
“I told him all about the regeneration plans for Newport and what we were doing. What I hadn’t realised was that he was born and brought up in the city: he was immediately enthusiastic.”
And so if you go to the Friars Walk website you can watch the video – complete with Eddie Butler commentary – which resulted from that chance encounter.
At a time when there is not a lot of shopping centre development taking place, the spotlight is shining on the Newport project. Which suits Newport very well as the city is undergoing a transformation and Friars Walk is, in some respects, the final piece of the jigsaw rather than the kick-start.
Newport railway station has been the subject of a £22m upgrade. Admiral Insurance has moved to a new 80,000 sq ft office in the city. The University of Wales has opened a £35m campus for 3,000 students close to the Riverfront Theatre & Arts Centre on the banks of the city’s River Usk. While a few miles away is the Celtic Manor Resort – the scene of Europe’s Ryder Cup triumph in 2010.
It is a positive picture which has been reinforced by Friars Walk securing Debenhams and Cineworld as anchor tenants and a clutch of other retailers including Next, Topshop, New Look, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Chiquito, Nandos and Prezzo.
Next’s CEO, Simon Wolfson, came to see for himself and left the city as a convert, commenting: “It is both rare and refreshing to see such well thought-through and ambitious regeneration plans that span commercial, residential, retail, leisure and educational developments”.
Just over 60% of the centre’s 300,000 sq ft of space is now let. Stuart Harris reflects: “Next and Topshop have been key for us. They had both closed shops in the centre of Newport a couple of years back and have stores on the retail park outside the city.
“But they’ve looked at the opportunity at Friars Walk and decided to come back into the city with stores that are two or three times bigger than those they had previously.
“They’re saying to the market that they see potential for the retail park and the city centre to co-exist.”
Changing the perception of a city can be a long process, but Harris reports that once someone sees how much is happening in the city then they quickly realise the potential.
“There are a number of people that are coming forward now that would have said six months ago: ‘No we don’t want to look at Newport.’ But whenever we get people down to the site, our conversion rate is exceptionally high because they see it’s happening and what the opportunities are.”
Lunson Mitchenall, Strutt & Parker and CBRE are working on the leasing of the remaining shopping and restaurant space ahead of completion which is scheduled to open in the autumn next year.
It will be the first project that Queensberry has completed since it was set up four years ago. Although the company may be a relative newcomer to the retail property development scene its founders – Harris, Paul Sargent and Jon Munce – are extensively experienced in the sector. They were formerly the management team of Multi Development UK, and delivered projects such as SouthGate in Bath and Victoria Square in Belfast.
The company is now appearing on developer shortlists alongside the likes of Land Securities and Lend Lease. As a consequence, Queensberry is now being approached to talk about development situations.
Harris is candid about the company’s progress to date: “A number of people have said to us that they are modelling their businesses on ours, which is quite interesting because we feel we’re still evolving. Given the recent economic conditions, a lot of what you’ve had to do is simply react to circumstances and judge where the market’s heading”.
Clearly a key part of the company’s success has been the ability to develop positive relationships with local authorities and create schemes that encompass their larger ambitions.
Harris observes: “It’s really important for local authorities that – when they pick a party that they want to work with – it’s someone that actually has a track record and has credibility, because that’s important for the operators as well.”
Other schemes are already lined up to follow Friars Walk. In Manchester, Queensberry is transforming the iconic Corn Exchange into a restaurant and leisure scheme, and it is also the preferred developer for a planned retail and leisure regeneration project in Coventry city centre. As a development manager, the company is also working for Merseyside Pension Fund on the revitalisation of the Tunsgate Centre in Guildford.
In addition to development and development management, the third strand of the company’s business is asset management. It has been appointed by The Crown Estate to manage the CrownGate assets in the city which comprise the Chapel Walk and Friary Way shopping centres. Queensberry has implemented a comprehensive asset management plan to enhance the synergy between the two centres.
Harris comments: “A mandate like that is using your developer’s vision to create a strategy for the asset rather than just reacting to it on a week-in-week-out basis.
“We’ve looked at zoning various elements of the centres and their surroundings. For example, there’s a beautiful historic theatre in the middle of Chapel Walk which probably has about 300 events a year but nobody has capitalised on how it can complement the retail and leisure around it.
“We’ve let space to good quality local independent retailers. That’s a good example of the way the retail market’s evolving. There’s a lot of talk about all the big retailers no longer wanting to take 200 or 300 stores, but the beauty of retail is that it’s so entrepreneurial, there are always new brands looking to build their businesses. Even M&S started with one store.”
Like its namesake, Queensberry is making its own rules while looking to explore the market and leverage its skill base.
Harris reports: “We’re keen to look at other opportunities where we can use our expertise to help local authorities design and deliver the right retail and leisure schemes for their population.
“Similarly, we’re keen to work with other owners of shopping centres or historic buildings in transforming their assets in to vibrant shopping or leisure destinations.”