RETAILERS, business owners and the council need to work together and embrace technology and new ideas if Darlington town centre is to stay sustainable and successful in future, a major conference has heard.

The Darlington town centre conference last night welcomed representatives from businesses large and small for a frank debate about the town’s strengths and its weaknesses.

More than 60 people attended the conference and took part in workshop-style discussions that will influence council policy and the role of the business improvement district in the coming years (BID).

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Retail offer, leisure facilities, the future of the markets and the potential impact of new developments such as the new cinema and hotel complex in the Feethams car park were high on the agenda.

Organised by Darlington Borough Council and Distinct Darlington, the conference aimed to round-up 18 months of strategy and consultation about the future direction of the town centre.

John Anderson, the council’s assistant director for regeneration, said Darlington was in a better position than most towns in the region coming out of the recession and had a number of exciting projects on the horizon.

He said: “We’ve been working on some of these projects for five years – the Feethams cinema development for example – and we want to remind people that some of the building blocks of recovery have already been laid.

“We have ambitions to build something like 6,000 new homes in the town and create 8,000 new jobs in the coming years. That’s important to the town centre and will bring economic activity and wealth, which will then create new business opportunities that we perhaps don’t have at the moment.”

He added: “We [the council] are not perfect, we have our challenges and change happens. There are significant changes happening in terms of internet shopping and the way people’s lifestyles are changing and the way they spend their leisure time.

“We’re saying to residents and businesses – how can we continue to support the town centre in the light of these changes and how can we take advantage of the opportunities ahead?”

Ian Taylor, director of Distinct Darlington, the town’s business improvement district company, said the conference was an opportunity for people to have their views heard and come up with new ideas.

He said: “This is part of a continuous improvement, we are always looking ahead. We’ve done an awful lot so far but accept that there are things we still need to do.

“Distinct Darlington is paid for by a levy on businesses and it is up to us to ensure we improve the town for the residents and visitors but also for those businesses.

“For me, a key issue is empty units – how do we get them filled in a ways that’s prosperous. We need to look closely at planning and whether residential use, bringing people back into the town centre to live, is a way forward.”