A COUNCIL strategy and action plan is aiming to boost spending by visitors in Darlington by £26m a year and cash in on the town’s title as birthplace of the railways.

The ‘Experience Darlington’ strategy, which will cover a period over the next nine years, aims to enhance the town’s attraction to visitors and create a lasting legacy in terms of 2025 being the 200th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Priorities include developing a business case for the regeneration of North Road as a ‘heritage quarter’ with a re-imagined visitor experience telling the story of the first steam hauled passenger-carrying railway, improving transport connections and networks, capitalising on shopping, culture, leisure, tourism and employment opportunities and raising the profile of the town.

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It also hoped the international celebration which will spin out of the 200th birthday of the Stockton and Darlington Railway will be central to a successful bid for Capital of Culture status in 2025 by the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA).

Last year 1.64m visitors came to Darlington from other parts of the UK, spending £52.65m in the local economy.

But council chiefs say Darlington is “under performing” for the size of the town it is, in terms of visitor stays, and have based the £26m figure on a potential ten per cent rise in day visitors and 30 per cent staying overnight.

The ‘overarching’ plans coincide with a continued debate among the town’s residents about the health of the town centre in particular, with a number of major retailers having left for out of town locations.

There has also been much controversy about the council’s decision to close the town’s historic library in Crown Street, gifted by philanthropist and businessman Edward Pease, which is currently subject to a legal challenge.

Last week in a letter to The Northern Echo Councillor Chris McEwan, cabinet member for economy and regeneration, said criticism of the town centre in particular had been “sadly inaccurate, ill-informed and unhelpful”.

He said it was doing well with more than 90 per cent of shop units occupied and unique in having a leisure centre, multi-screen cinema and theatre, all within a few minutes’ walk.

Darlington Borough Council, along with Stockton and Durham Councils and the TVCA have submitted a joint application to Historic England for a heritage action zone, under a rail heritage theme, which could deliver funding and grants for regeneration projects along the original Stockton and Darlington railway track bed.

The council has also been discussing a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund to take advantage of its national funding pot.

As well as the idea of promoting Darlington’s reputation as a railway town, another theme is establishing Darlington’s regional and national reputation for arts and culture, highlighting the fully restored 1,000 seat Edwardian Hippodrome Theatre and Theatre Hullabaloo as a centre of excellence for children’s theatre.

A report to be presented to councillors at next week’s cabinet said there was a key opportunity for the town to make more of its unique ‘ingenious’ story, from its lead role in the birth of the passenger railways, Quaker heritage, through to its globally renowned reputation for bridge building and emerging role in biologics.

Councillor Nick Wallis, cabinet member for leisure and the environment, said: “There is no shortage of vision. This is how we as a town will grow out of austerity, celebrating the heritage we have and making it practical.”

A consultation launched last year aimed at informing the plans received just 209 written responses from people and organisations with a stake in Darlington, a town with a population of more than 100,000.

But Cllr Wallis said it was about “quality not quantity”.

He said: “As councillors and officers we are not in a bubble and we are talking to people all the time about what is working well and what isn’t.

“I’m not worried, this is the base camp to climb Everest. As we move forward, a key element of the Heritage Lottery Fund bid will be how you are engaging with residents.

“But it is so critical to invest because the rewards will be so enormous.”

The consultation found that 86 per cent of respondents agreed Darlington needed a distinctive and cohesive visitor/tourism strategy, while 82 cent felt railway heritage could help encourage visitors to Darlington but 75 per cent felt this wasn’t promoted enough.

Other suggestions included a review of parking charges, pedestrianising the entire town centre, improving signage to attractions, using the market square for markets and retaining Crown Street library as a visitor attraction.

Referring to the library, which is being moved to the town’s Dolphin Centre, Cllr Wallis added: “The building will still be treasured and a central part of the town’s landscape. We hope it will have public access which will allow it to be appreciated by the public.

“Most buildings that are quite old change their usage over time, it is not unusual.

“This is a decision right for library use in the town and taking it into the 21st century.

“It will remain a heritage asset, albeit with a different function.”

John Anderson, Darlington Council’s assistant director for economic initiatives, said support from TVCA and its member councils had given the local authority “more clout” to match funding from national organisations.

He said: “There is a real sea change I think that all the authorities are trying to deliver by working together.

“The combined authority has recognised that Darlington’s railway heritage is one of the few things in the Tees Valley that has global appeal and they are already indicating that they want to put resources in and make something happen.

“If you have a good enough vision and a credible business plan, generally money finds it.”

A Rail Heritage 2025 Steering Group, involving key partners such as TVCA, Historic England, the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, Historic England, Arriva, Northern rail, Durham County Council and Stockton Borough Council has been set up to deliver some of the projects planned and will meet for the first time later this month.

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said he wished to “maximise the cultural and economic opportunity for the area” and ensure that full advantage was taken of its unique railway heritage.