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Exeter's fortunes to revive with new hotel investment

View from Exeter's cathedral green with proposed rooftop bar on House of Fraser building visible to right of Clarence Hotel and to left of St Martin's church (CGI from Expedite / Prydis)

This week Future Cities Forum - in its' series on investment to save UK high streets - looks at the development of a new hotel to be sited in Exeter's former House of Fraser store.

Managing Director of Wealth Manager Prydis, Joe Priday, spoke to Future Cities Forum about the business case for the £30 million redevelopment of Exeter's vacant House of Fraser department store into a 104 bedroom luxury hotel, with restaurant and the ground floor divided into retail units.

The news of the development is being welcomed by the city which lost the historic Clarence Hotel in Cathedral Yard back in 2016 due to fire. Visitors and residents were devastated by the loss of such an important building said to have been designed originally as assembly rooms for the city and visited by Admiral Lord Nelson in 1801.

Joe explained:

'The (House of Fraser) building was not listed, and had excellent views over the cathedral. The fundamentals were there and the numbers made sense by splitting the ground floor into four separate units with a luxury hotel and separate restaurant above.

'In Exeter we have seen the Princesshay and Guildhall developments put retail rents up to savagely high levels. There has been much talk about pressure on the high streets in the UK but there is a lot of urban sprawl with secondary locations for retail that won't work as business models. Focusing on an opportunity to redevelop a prime site, like House of Fraser - sitting between the high street and Catherine Square which leads to the cathedral green - makes more sense.

'Having a high end hotel above attracts the retail occupiers. Then the whole package starts working. Originally we looked at the building as we were asked to fund it. Earlier on investors interested in the site went for residential proposals but it's too deep and dark as a building for this sort of use. However, we know from working with the Asian market that there is a hotel shortage in central Exeter, and wealthy visiting parents of Far Eastern university students have limited choices on where to stay in the centre.

'The closure of the historic Clarence Hotel on the cathedral green has exacerbated the pressures. Working with the hotel team at Lambert Smith Hampton we referenced the models used by IHG (international Hotels Group) which has recently put in a hotel down by the river Exe. By using our own lawyers and financiers we could bring project costs right down for the House of Fraser redevelopment.

'We put the business case to Karime Hassan, Exeter City Council's Chief Executive and other stake-holders. We said we need to re-purpose as a hotel. It's not listed but it overlooks the cathedral. We don't need another white elephant.'

'The Asian student population is affluent with parents that regularly visit the city from overseas. We became aware that there isn't a fine dining experience that serves this market. The centre of Exeter is very much a walled Roman city and development opportunities are limited. The House of Fraser building is a real focal point in the centre and near the university. The building was owned by three parties including the city council. We had to present different options and put the planning piece together by aligning the stake-holders' interests which was difficult.

'Catherine Square - where the hotel entrance will be - has become an attractive place to be, a boutique hub just off both high street and cathedral green. There was no negative public commentary at all during the planning process, though there is sadness at the loss of a department store. If you can give something back, for instance the planned roof top bar which is all about getting the vista with the only full view of the cathedral, then you are helping to enhance the fabric of the city.

'This new bar may well become a tourist attraction in its own right. Then the hotel becomes a destination. Then the employment numbers go up and they are expected to be higher than the department store use, and the business case works - and as long as the heritage bodies are happy (which they are) then you have ticked all the boxes. We have a bump in the road with Covid-19 but we are looking forward to opening in August 2021 with a nine month build.

'I think there is big tourist play to be made for Exeter around the Roman Baths which sit beneath the Cathedral Green, so the future for the Grade 1 listed Clarence Hotel could be rebuilding it with respect to heritage partly as a visitor centre with a focus on Roman Exeter. This is because it does not have enough rooms to work profitably as a hotel, but it has a very important location.'

Future Cities Forum will be discussing the relationships between cultural infrastructure, retail and tourism in cities - as countries slowly prepare to come out of COVID-19 lock downs.

(Below: CGI from Expedite of view from proposed roof top bar at the redeveloped House of Fraser building with views over Exeter Cathedral)

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