THE developers behind a £90m shopping and leisure complex planned for a North-East town said yesterday that the scheme could lift the region's economy.

Discovery Properties, which is based in London, told civic and business leaders that the Commercial Street centre would be critical in attracting retailers to Darlington.

Discovery has been chosen as the borough council's preferred developer for the project.

In a presentation to council officials and traders, Discovery chief executive Hugo Hawkings said the four-storey centre would revitalise the area, which is presently occupied by a car park.

He said: "There is a shortage of retail units of the size and configuration required by the mainstream retailers. As a result, many haven't come to Darlington yet.

"It would be brilliant to bring another department store to the town - the scheme includes a department store that will act as a major anchor."

Shops would take up the ground and first floors. The second would accommodate the top level of the department store, as well as providing access to restaurants and a cinema.

A showpiece bridge linking Commercial Street to Kendrew Street would also be at this level, crossing St Augustine's Way and taking people to a 900-space multi-storey car park.

Eighteen apartments looking towards the Gladstone Street conservation area would also be created on that side of the development.

On the top floor would be a nightclub and the upper level of the cinema.

A spectacular glass atrium, with a winter garden area, would face the Northgate roundabout.

Project architect David Collins said the development provided the opportunity to create iconic features.

He said: "We want to create a building that is unique to Darlington and would be a landmark.

"Transparency and visibility are very important.

"We want to avoid the introverted nature of a lot of shopping centres."

Mr Hawkings said a planning application could be submitted early next year and he expected council officials to take six months to consider it.

If the plans are approved, it is expected to take about a year to resolve a number of issues, with work on the car park beginning at the end of 2007.

The project could be completed by 2009.

The council's assistant regeneration director, Richard Alty, said exhibitions would be held before the submission of the planning application.