Changing the bulbs

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Shopping centre managers know that some months are dead, and that they will need all their marketing and promotional skills to attract shoppers, while the year's main calendar fixtures that take place close to the centre will ensure hundreds of extra visitors.

This will be the pattern when the the 140,000 sq ft (13,000 sq m) Springfields factory outlet centre, a mile outside Spalding, opens next April. The retailers will have a month to get their branches running in the centre, before 200,000 flower lovers descend on Springfields from all over the world for the renowned Spalding Flower Parade in May.

As the factory outlet is being built in the centre of Springfields Gardens a mile to the east of the town, the retailers look certain to have a bumper May among the bulbs.

The retailers will experience a few more years of seasonal fluctuation until 2008, when Spalding plays host to the World Tulip Summit. Among the flower's afficionados, there will surely be a few hundred who will break off from all things horticultural to visit the outlet stores of such retailers as Mexx, Antler and Designer Room.

Spalding is the centre of the UK's flower bulb industry. The bulbs that end up as potted plants in shops stretch for as far as the eye can see, and Springfields Gardens has become a showcase for the blooms. But the 38 acre (15.5 ha) site was so remote that it was not financially viable, even though the public paid to come in.

The only salvation was to turn to the commercial property industry, not only to build a factory outlet, but to provide money under planning gain to keep the flowers blooming.

Thornfield Properties, which has Lehman Brothers and Halifax Bank of Scotland as its main shareholders, was chosen to do the development. In September 2000, a planning inspector conducted a public inquiry to ascertain how a shopping centre would undermine retailers in Spalding. But in February 2001 the government accepted the inspector's recommendation to allow the development to proceed, even though out-of-town retail development is against government policy.

But to gain consent, Thornfield had to promise to provide transport to link the factory outlet with town centre shops. More important, Thornfield agreed to contribute £3m to keep the gardens going.

South Holland District Council's planning manager Stephen Bate says: 'What is going to happen now is that there will be a garden centre as part of the site. There will also be formal gardens laid out, leisure facilities and landscaping.'

Having the best landscaped factory outlet centre in the UK is certainly playing well with retailers. The space is already 85% let. Letting agent Markham Vaughan Gillingham's managing director Ian Barbour, says it is unknown for a factory outlet to be 85% let, seven months before opening.

Barbour is a few weeks away from announcing an 8,000 sq ft (743 sq m) letting to a large retailer.

CACI, the retail research company, says that the kind of people who visit public gardens are also the kind who go factory outlet shopping.

Barbour agrees and says: 'A lot has been said about adding leisure to factory outlets. But if you add a multiplex, you just go the centre, park your car, but you don't necessarily shop. But this is the first time that two leisure activities have been integrated, and we are very excited about it.'

The retailers are taking 10-year leases and paying either a base rent or about 12% of their turnover. They include a couple of men's outfitters like Suits You and Petroleum, and part of the reason for calling the public inquiry was to find out whether the presence of such chains would have a negative impact on existing retailers.

Mann & Son has been selling men's and boys' clothes in the centre of Spalding since 1911.

Nigel Mann, whose grandfather and great-grandfather founded the shop, says: 'It's easy to be negative, but I think Springfields will benefit the town because it will bring more people to Spalding.'

He adds that Mann & Son does not trade particularly well on Flower Festival Saturday, but Thornfield is gambling on a different story from the factory outlet retailers.


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