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'Watford is going to be a real town to reckon with', says intu Watford boss Mike Stevens
The massive expansion of intu Watford coupled with developments in the town such as the Croxley Rail Link will make it a commercial force "to reckon with", according to the shopping centre’s outgoing manager.
Mike Stevens, who retires later this month, said the Charter Place development will mean Watford have one of the largest regional shopping centres in the country.
The 68-year-old, who has run intu Watford for the last 12 years, also said the long-awaited expansion will give the centre the opportunity to remodel itself to meet the rapidly changing demands of shoppers.
In an interview with the Watford Observer, he said: "The whole shopping centre as it is at the moment is one million square feet and Charter Place in round figures is half a million square feet. So when this development is finished you will have one of the largest, if not the largest shopping centres in the UK.
"We now have Croxley Rail Link underway, it’s not just a dream, but will probably open around the same time as Charter Place.
"We have this huge development going to take place with the health campus and so the town is really moving now. I think when you get to 2016/17 Watford is going to be a real town to reckon with in the UK."
Mr Stevens came to Watford in 2001 and one of his main tasks at the time was to head up the initial attempts for the then Harlequin to take over the neighbouring Charter Place centre.
However those initial negotiations with Watford Borough Council, which owns the centre, fell through leading to 10 years of deadlock on the project.
Recalling the episode, Mr Stevens said: "The problem seemed fall down that they (the council) wanted more out of it than we could possibly provide. We were still negotiating with them but in the end there was a change within the mood in Watford Borough Council and they decided they wanted to take it out to the outside market."
In the intervening decade the council undertook two failed attempts to redevelop Charter Place with companies. Last year Intu came in for the centre again and agreed a 999-year lease with the council.
Under its current £100 million proposals it intends to rebuild Charter Place into a new development dominated by restaurants and a cinema.
Mr Stevens said in hindsight 10-year delay in the project was a surprise blessing as it gave the company a chance to build the new centre to attract customers who can now shop online.
He said: "The demands for what the town wants is for more restaurants, larger shops, not lots of small ones, and the key to it is the cinema.
"I think we are almost better that we did not get it ten years ago because now obviously now the retail picture has changed quite dramatically, the demands of the customers have changed.
"I think probably for some wrong reasons we are in the right place now to carry out this development."
The father-of-two described his time running the shopping centre as "never dull" and conceded one of the more lively periods came when it rebranded from the Harlequin to intu Watford earlier this year.
He said: "Did it go down a storm? No. Because the Harlequin name was well established here and we were surprised by just how much affection there was for it. So when it was coming through on Twitter and Facebook, some of the comments on there were best described as lively."
Born in Portsmouth, Mr Stevens started his working life at his family construction firm. Yet after deciding that cold, wet building sites were not for him he used skills taught to him by his butcher grandfather to get a job at Fine Fare supermarkets.
In 1970 he joined Marks & Spencers as a trainee and left in 1993 as the manager of a store in Horsham, Sussex, to become general manager of Capital Shopping Centre’s The Potteries centre in Stoke. He then became manager at The Chimes in Uxbridge before coming to Watford.
The Watford FC season-ticket holder said he was looking forward to spending this retirement watching the Hornets, seeing family abroad and travelling with his wife Jane to India and the Maldives.
He added: "I have been working for 50 years, I think that will do thank you very much."
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