Waterfront developer

Whatever the outcome of the super casino debate, Blackpool's urban regeneration director Doug Garrett wants to restore the resort's appeal for pleasure seekers, writes Paul Carnell.

Garrett: Blackpool's urban regeneration director
Garrett: Blackpool's urban regeneration director

Research to support Blackpool's bid for the country's first super casino licence found that more than 70 per cent of the UK's adult population has visited the Lancashire seaside resort at one time or another.

ReBlackpool chief executive Doug Garrett believes that the figure underlines the country's goodwill towards Blackpool. "There are many people who would love it to be the exciting place they remember. I would like to give them an excuse to come back again," he says.

The town's urban regeneration company was formed in 2005 to drive forward the masterplan for Blackpool. A well-publicised part of this was a bid for the super casino nomination, which was unexpectedly awarded to Manchester earlier this year. However, prime minister Gordon Brown has since called for a rethink on casinos as regeneration drivers. A decision on their future is eagerly awaited.

"We want to deliver the high-end malls, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and hotels that come with the casino," Garrett maintains. Yet this could still be viable without one. Proposals for large-scale conference facilities were outlined in a sustainable growth plan that a Northwest Development Agency-led task force lodged with ministers this summer.

Garrett says the town needs to look closely at what else can be delivered alongside the conference centre. Yet whatever emerges will be just one piece in the jigsaw of revitalising Blackpool. He points out that the town's coastal location is irrelevant for many because they do not visit the beach or the seafront.

The pleasure beach is incredibly popular and one of the most visited tourist attractions in the UK. But one unfortunate perception of Blackpool is that it is overrun with stag and hen parties. Garrett insists that this is hard to notice when the town is busy. The problem arises when the resort is quiet and revellers tend to dominate the town.

The People's Playground project is seizing the opportunity provided by the reconstruction of sea defences to reconnect the town with the waterfront. Now submitted for lottery funding, this project would provide public art, performance and event spaces, as well as a management and education centre. A planned laser recreation of the Northern Lights would be visible from 25km away.

"If we leave the defences open and windswept, that will do nothing to reconnect the town with the sea. People's Playground will bring something unique to Blackpool," Garrett predicts. Another project that he expects to enhance the town's attraction is a £285 million private sector scheme to regenerate the area around Blackpool North railway station.

"Blackpool has always been a mass tourist destination. The reason we have three piers is that they deal with different sections of the population," says Garrett. "The mix of visitors has narrowed over the years. But we are trying to broaden the appeal. We need to create a proper sense of place for the locals so they are proud of where they live and their access to jobs and opportunities."

Garrett came to ReBlackpool from the Laganside Corporation in Belfast, where he helped to secure £1 billion of investment and 20,000 jobs as part of the redevelopment of the city centre's docks and riverside area. He emphasises that he has not come to Blackpool to recreate Belfast, given that each area has its own specific problems and resources.

However, he recognises that Blackpool has experienced a number of the same issues as Belfast. Many people left Northern Ireland in the worst days of the troubles to live and work abroad. Equally, a lot of people have left Blackpool in recent years because of the deteriorating economy. Garrett wants to give them a reason to return, as well as offering school leavers a reason to stay.

With the stabilisation of the political situation and the revitalisation of Belfast, he points out, the trend towards depopulation has been reversed. "From all around the world, Irish people are returning to the country to work. The economy has taken off. That is what I hold on for here in Blackpool," he explains.

While many coastal towns have been regenerated, few have witnessed renewed success as resorts. As well as its three piers, Blackpool has a giant roller coaster, six working theatres, winter gardens and, of course, the tower. "With this critical mass, it has the opportunity to bring back to the UK a resort mentality that is almost dead," says Garrett. "By 2012 we want Blackpool to be European capital of fun and an antidote to the Olympics."

CV
Age: 44
Family: Married with three children
Education: Degree in international business, University of London
Interests: Cycling, Blackpool and Leeds United Football Clubs, cinema
and theatre
2005: Chief executive, ReBlackpool
2001: Deputy chief executive, Laganside Corporation, Belfast
1994: Joined Laganside
1989: British Rail, various roles, rising to products manager
1985: Marketing liaison manager, Kalfass GmbH, Stuttgart


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