Just eight of 20 shops were let when the council bought Keel Row. Credit: NCC

Local authority buys Blyth’s Keel Row

Northumberland County Council has acquired the troubled shopping centre, where it plans to introduce uses beyond retail once the centre closes in early 2024.

The centre had been heavily hit by the decline in high street retail, with vendor Northumberland Estates trading at a loss for some time.

Education, innovation and leisure facilities are in play for the facility, where just eight of 20 units are currently let to commercial tenants. Just 25% of lettable floorspace is currently producing rental income.

Keel Row will remain open until a planned closure in early 2024. The county council said it is working with all affected parties to provide support to remaining businesses and affected employees. Business relocation support will be offered.

Northumberland’s wish is to bring the site back into positive use as part of the £90m Energising Blyth regeneration programme, allowing it to lay as part alongside projects such as the recently approved cultural hub.

Energising Blyth is being delivered by NCC, using a mix of funding streams including its own finances and backing from central government, the North of Tyne Combined Authority and other partners.

The council’s acquisition comprises the shopping centre, car park, and the vacant property at 7-9 Bridge Street.

Incoming uses will include the new Energy Central Institute. The institute, the second phase of the Energy Central Campus, is envisaged as a higher-level skills and innovation facility, developing expertise at degree and PhD levels to keep Blyth at the forefront of clean energy growth. There is also an aspiration for a new hotel.

Cllr Wojciech Ploszaj, cabinet member for supporting business and opportunities at NCC, said: “The Keel Row Shopping Centre has been an important part of life in Blyth for many years but has been struggling. This is despite the efforts of the owner, the managing agent of the centre, and everyone who works there.

“We’ve known for some time the centre was likely to close and that the owners were considering options for closure, sale and non-retail development. While we understand this is disappointing news, the agreement we have reached means that the centre will remain open until early 2024, giving time for all those affected to plan for the future.”

He continued: “The town continues to have a range of popular retail businesses and we’re delivering major improvements beginning this summer. This includes the new cultural venue which will house a new three screen Jam Jar cinema plus improvements to Market Place and Bridge Street.

“The acquisition means we can bring forward more development in the town centre including investment in educational, innovation and cultural activities. This will make the town a more welcoming, safe and popular place to visit attracting a wide range of people wanting to work, learn and enjoy all the town has to offer.”

Michael O’Driscoll, commercial property investment director at Northumberland Estates, said: “We have owned Keel Row Shopping Centre and car park for several years and despite additional investment into the site and ongoing efforts to market retail units within the centre, there has been a sustained decline in tenancies.

“The pandemic was incredibly tough for high street businesses and sadly, the Keel Row is no longer a viable commercial venture. We have been trading at a loss for a considerable period which is unsustainable. The tenants have been made aware of the sale and the proposed plans.

“I appreciate that this is disappointing news but our agreement with Northumberland County Council means that there is now time to plan for the future and attract new opportunities that will bring the town back to life.”

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