PLANS to open a flagship department store in the offices of The Northern Echo and its sister newspapers are set to go ahead.

Retail company Debenhams expects to open the new store in Priestgate, Darlington in late 2015 or spring 2016, creating about 200 jobs. The move would end the newspaper's 142 year involvement with the site.

Moorfield Real Estate Fund, which owns the nearby Cornmill shopping centre, agreed an option to buy the four-storey 40,000sq ft Northern Echo building in July 2011. The original plan to have the store open for trading by autumn 2014 has been delayed by protracted negotiations, but a Debenhams spokesman confirmed a Darlington store was one of 17 new outlets it expected to open in the next five years.  

The Northern Echo has been based in Priestgate since the first copy was published on January 1, 1870. The existing building was redeveloped in 1916. Newsquest, which owns The Northern Echo and its sister titles the Darlington & Stockton Times, the Durham Times and the Advertiser Series has pledged to stay in Darlington.

Debenhams hailed a resurgent year as it announced plans to strengthen its presence on the high street. The move, which is set to create 1,700 jobs across the UK and add more than £150m in sales, comes on top of a nationwide store revamp programme which has seen 18 shops modernised over the past year.

The company, which has 155 UK stores, said it was committed to "reinvigorating the British high street" as it unveiled the latest store expansion plan, which builds on the nine new UK outlets announced last year.

Other new stores in the pipeline include Cheshire Oaks, Fort Kinnaird near Edinburgh, Beverley East Yorkshire, Wandsworth South London, Scunthorpe, Shrewsbury and Newport, South Wales.

Debenhams reported a 4.2 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £158.3m for the year to September 1 after a recent sales revival. There was a 39.8 per cent rise in online sales to £250.6m in the year, prompting it to increase its target to £600m from £500m.

Chief executive Michael Sharp said retailers were battling against a "very difficult market," but added the group expects to continue bucking the trend.

He said: 'We believe that customers are acclimatised to the new economic reality.
'Whilst we don’t anticipate a significant change in the economic environment in 2013, we expect to make further progress during the year.'