A report going before councillors next week reveals that phase two of the controversial town centre development is still not viable in the eyes of developer Simons.
That assessment is despite the fact that the council agreed in October 2012 to spend up to £2million on preparatory works on behalf of Simons and retail giant Marks and Spencer signing up to take the second anchor store in the scheme.
Members of the council’s efficiency scrutiny committee will be asked at their meeting next week to agree a series of recommendations including that, subject to due diligence, the council agrees to underwrite 50 per cent of the ‘financial gap to viability’ up to a maximum of £2.062million should it be necessary.
The cost of underwriting any shortfall would be funded from the council’s reserves and officers claim bringing forward the development would bring forward financial advantages to the council through business rates, council tax, new homes bonuses and parking income.
The report also reveals that Simons is also asking for changes to the amount of parking provided on site, with the developer willing to provide 300 spaces as well as making a financial contribution for the council to provide spaces elsewhere.
However, council officers are keen to ensure that the maximum spaces number of spaces on site of around 470 are retained in the scheme and are asking members to put forward a recommendation to that effect.
Local district councillor Andy Canning, who is a member of the efficiency scrutiny committee, admitted that the council faced a ‘difficult decision’.
He said: “Clearly we want the development to go ahead – we want the larger shops, we want the extra visitors and shoppers to come into the town.
“But it will be at a cost of nearly £2million from the council’s reserves.
“On balance I think because we now seem to have signed up some major names for the site I think it probably is worth spending the extra £2m so the project goes ahead.”
Coun Canning said it was also imperative that the council ensured the maximum number of car parking spaces possible were retained on the site, both during construction and when the scheme is completed.
Fellow councillor Alistair Chisholm agreed that the parking was crucial but slammed the proposal to allocate more public funds to Simons.
He said: “I think it’s absolutely extraordinary.
“It just seems as though the bucket of public money that is being held by West Dorset District Council is not serving its purpose, it seems riddled with holes.
“This is a valuable resource that we know is getting smaller and smaller is quickly draining away to fill the gaps in what we were promised was going to be a private sector development.”
Coun Chisholm added: “Of course we all want to see something happening on Charles Street but at what cost?”
Leader of West Dorset District Council Robert Gould said: “The redevelopment of Charles Street is a long held ambition of the district council bringing new, bigger Marks and Spencer and Waitrose stores, creating around 600 new jobs, parking spaces and a real boost to the wider local economy.
“It also has the potential to generate significant income for the council through business rates, council tax, parking income as well as the new homes bonus.
“The benefits of the scheme are significant for the local area but unfortunately the poor economic climate of recent years has caused progress to stall.
“The council is considering allocating funds from its capital reserves to underwrite the financial viability gap to help give the developer confidence to take the scheme forward.
“A decision will not be made until February when the matter will be considered by full council.”
1973: Plans for a new-look Dorchester town centre first touted, a proposed redevelopment was abandoned a year later because it was seen as too ambitious.
Late 1980s: A scheme to build a two-storey shopping mall on Charles Street put forward by developers but falls down after the collapse of the property market.
Late 1990s: Developers Helical put forward plans to redevelop the site with department stores, around 25 smaller shops, an extension to Waitrose and housing but the scheme was abandoned in 2000 after failing to secure a flagship store.
September 2006: Simons selected by the district council as preferred developer for the site.
August 2007: Representatives from Simons and West Dorset District Council put pen to paper on a development agreement, which sets out how the developers and council will take the site forward.
July 2009: Opposition councillors voice anger after council announces Simons as preferred developer for new office scheme. Simons release first artist's impression of what new offices will look like.
September 28, 2010: Members of West Dorset District Council’s development control committee approve full planning application for council office and library block and grant outline permission for the rest of the scheme.
June 6, 2011: Work begins on site.
November 2011: Waitrose agrees terms on lease for Charles Street anchor store.
October 2012: Despite opposition from residents and some members, the council backs plans to spend £2million of public money on preparatory works for the Charles Street phase two scheme, including relocating the Dorchester Community Church. The authority also approves amendments to the plans that include replacing a proposed hotel with 24 apartments and scrapping the lower deck of basement car parking with additional parking provided at the Fairfield Market car park instead.
December 2012: Council staff begin moving into new offices at South Walks House, with the move completed and offices open to the public by the end of January 2013.
September 2013: Simons submits application to extend outline planning permission for phase two of the scheme as original permission is set to expire.
December 2013: Planning permission is extended for two years.
January 2014: Marks and Spencer announced as second anchor store.