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Published:  21 April, 2008

As only the second out-of-town retail mall ever to be built in the country, after Brent Cross, Hempstead Valley shopping centre in Gillingham, Kent, is celebrating its 30th birthday this year.

Having been originally developed by Federated Properties, the centre was bought by British Steel Pension Fund in the early 80s. Last year the Fund started to look for a business partner and British Airways Pension Fund became joint owner, bringing a lot of new ideas for the district shopping centre, which serves the communities of Medway and receives visits from customers as far as Maidstone, Herne Bay, Gravesend and even Canterbury.

The scheme started life as a two-mall covered centre before it was extended in 1992 to create a third mall leading to M&S. Talks have now commenced on the construction of phase three, which is set to begin early in 2009. This includes an extension at the Argos end of the mall so that the two external units come within an extended covered mall, and three more larger units ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 sq ft, creating 30,000 sq ft of space in total.

"We have some strong interest at the moment," says centre manager Mark Rumfitt. "Hopefully we'll be on site with construction some time around early 2009. We have a good tenant mix but we want to extend that and make it stronger, bringing in a greater fashion mix."

Marketing executive Su Button adds: "The centre is always 100 per cent let so the extension is the only way to get new retailers, because the existing tenants don't want to leave."

Last year a BB's Coffee & Muffins was added as a mall café offer and Subway has opened this month in the food court - the oldest food court in the country. The centre is also in discussions with a juice bar operator about opening a mall unit, and Body Shop has taken a unit and will be opening later this year.

It's no surprise that the centre is so popular with retailers. Footfall was up 2.1 per cent last year to 6.3 million visitors, despite major competition from Bluewater, which is only 20 minutes away by car, as well as from Fremlin Walk in Maidstone and Whitefriars in Canterbury. Loyal shoppers from these areas still choose to visit Hempstead Valley, which boasts the third most successful Sainsbury's in the country for sales, as well as a range of retailers including M&S, whose newly refitted store has reported double digit growth, Boots, Argos, New Look, Bhs, Clinton Cards and WH Smith.

Rumfitt adds: "Thirty-four per cent of our trade is food shopping but people will come here for destination shopping from as far as Essex and Canterbury."

As the only Purple Apple Award winner in 2007, Button has worked extremely hard to ensure Hempstead Valley remains a successful district centre. She has developed a very positive relationship with local media and was the first Purple Apple Award winner to be given the maximum 50 points by one of the judges for her fashion features, which she ran through the Kent Messenger and in conjunction with the local radio station.

"Something like 70 per cent of our tenants have been mentioned in news stories over the last two years," says Rumfitt, who is also co-chairing next year's BCSC Mangement Conference with Eileen Connolly. This year, the centre is entering the Purple Apple Awards for the relationship Button has built up with the Medway Messenger, generating £140,000 worth of PR and 57 individual photo shoots for various events since January 2006.

Media relations are also backed up by strong advertising based on the current successful 'find your' strapline (used alongside all the campaigns, such as 'Find Your Spring Style'), which was developed by the centre media designers MSDC.

The centre has also built a reputation for events, which generate added value and theatre for customers and bring additional interest to the strong tenant mix. Events include a monthly farmers' market, monthly craft and memorabilia fairs, a bi-annual wedding fair, a bi-annual food and drink fair and an annual Christmas gift fair.

Hempstead Valley, which works alongside Theme Events to stage the shows, is currently also planning a motor pageant with one of the major Kent newspapers for the back end of 2009, which will again provide added interest and an opportunity to promote the strengths of the centre.

And the centre's success doesn't end there. In addition to last year's Purple Apple Award, other gongs include an ICSC Silver Maxi Award in 2007, the Safer Business Award 2006, a Purple Apple Merit in 2003 and a Purple Apple Merit 2001. In 1980 it also won the ICSC European Shopping Centre Award, while being recognised as an Investor in People in January this year and achieving the Park Mark secure car parks award.

"We have 2,200 free car parking spaces and that's our USP," adds Rumfitt. "The crime levels at the centre are also extremely low and that's another USP. The high levels of cleanliness and security are also important elements in attracting people from other destinations."

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=== vital statistics ===

hempstead Valley

Owners: British Steel Pension Fund / British Airways Pension Fund

Managing Agent: DTZ

Letting Agents: DTZ / Gooch Cunliffe Whale

Size: 25,000 sq ft

Footfall: 6.3 million pa (+2.1% in 2007)

Dwelltime: 3 hours

Weighted catchment: 78,980

Anchors: Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, BHS, Argos

Units: 52

Parking: 2,160 free spaces of which 1,500 are undercover

Opened: 1978

Extended Phase 2: 1992

Architects: Phases 2 & 3: DLG