DARLINGTON needs positive ambassadors to highlight all that is good about the town as it looks to attract major investment, a conference has heard.

Mike Airey, manager of the Darlington branch of Handelsbanken and chairman of the economic strategy group for the Darlington Partnership, made his comments in the keynote speech of the Darlington Town Centre Conference.

Mr Airey told the dozens of retailers, business owners and councillors who attended the conference that the aim was to transform the local economy through growth and investment.

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He said: “We need to look at where we are – it’s not as good as it could be. There are 4,000 people in the town on employment support allowance and unemployment stands at 9.6 per cent. Youth unemployment is a serious problem.

“We want to transform the economy and the lives of people around the town. We want to build on the connectivity that we’ve got - a great position beside the A1 and the East Coast Main Line. We need to focus on growth sectors, such as sub-sea and biologics, logistics, manufacturing and engineering and digital communications.

“By 2025 we want to create 8,000 new jobs and build 6,000 new homes. Those are really big numbers but that will boost our economy. We want to be the UK location of choice for big investment and it’s already happening – Darlington College is the only place in the UK offering training in the operation of sub-sea vehicles.

“There are more positive messages than negative ones but we all need to be ambassadors for Darlington.”

Ian Taylor, director of Distinct Darlington - the business improvement district for the town, said: “Everyone in the room has a vested interest in seeing the best for Darlington and collectively we can work together to guide the town from strength to strength.

“The town must always be proactive as technology develops. We need continuous improvement.

“There’s much right about Darlington, many things we take for granted. There are also a number of things we want to improve and tonight is about that.

“We’ll be taking your thoughts, those of other businesses, residents and visitors and adding them together and using them to take the town forward.”

RICHARD Shepherd, an independent consultant working on the Darlington Town Centre Study, gave some of his preliminary findings about Darlington and its prospects:

• Darlington has a potential catchment area of 300,000 shoppers.

• Existing retail and business provision in the town is at expected levels in the current economy.

• There is no urgent call for extra retail space at this time, except in the areas of discount food, such as Lidl or Aldi, and large fashion retailers.

• Darlington has 24 out of 27 of the major UK retailers – only John Lewis, H&M and Debenhams are missing.

• Commercial rental rates have dropped by 20 per cent in Darlington since 2007, comparing with Middlesbrough at 38 per cent and Newcastle at 37 per cent.

• Retail experts “consider Darlington a solid performer that has probably withstood the recession better than most centres of a similar type”.

THE Northern Echo spoke to a number of retailers and business representatives at the conference to find out their reasons for attending and their hopes for Darlington.

BILL Gillow, of Geoffrey Gillow clothing store, in Grange Road, said: "I’m here because I’m passionate about Darlington, I was born and bred here. We’ve been in business for five decades and want to see the town through the next 50 years. I’m excited to hear about the sub-sea and biologics – it’s great that Darlington is a world leader in two new technologies. But we need to build on Darlington’s unique heritage – the town has a fine indoor market hall which has sadly declined and needs to be completely overhauled and made attractive to a younger audience.”

SAMANTHA Blackham, market trader and organiser of the Sunday People’s Market, said: "I came because I wanted to see what the consensus was from other businesses and officials. The biggest issue for everybody is the sharing of knowledge. The council is in charge of working out what’s best for Darlington, and I think they do that, but we struggle to get any information back. There was lots of things mentioned tonight that I never knew about Darlington and that information sometimes gets lost on its way to the traders.”

LES Fry, owner of Voodoo Cafe, in Skinnergate, said: “I wanted to hear the opinions of the other people around me – you live in a vacuum as a business owner, you only think about your own situation. The perspective of others on issues in the town centre is interesting – I’m against the reintroduction of parking to Skinnergate but having heard the views of those for it I think if we can come up with a compromise we could all be successful.”

CHARLOTTE Nichols, of Harvey and Hugo PR, in Victoria Road, said: “I’m here because I’ve got a small business in Darlington, I’m a director of the business improvement district and a member of Darlington Cares – I’m really passionate about the town. For me a big issue for businesses in Darlington is the low level of take up of social media. It’s not the be all and end all but if people would get involved with that they would see so much business. Social media isn’t a new thing but it still seems new to Darlington.”

JULIE Wallin, director of Carver Commercial Chartered Surveyors, in St Cuthbert’s Way, said: “I am here because we are based in Darlington, we sell and let commercial properties and we have concerns about the increasing number of vacant units, particularly retail in Darlington which are increasingly challenging to let for clients. Some have been on the market for 12 months. Changes to planning policy and also parking policy in Darlington would help. Using commercial properties for residential would be relevant in certain parts of town but not across the board.”