The Times       August 25, 2006

  Where next?

  Playing to the gallery
  The man behind Saga Holidays is using art to regenerate Folkestone, says
Mary Gold

  FOLKESTONE is getting a facelift on a huge scale — and about time too, you
may say. Once the most genteel of resorts on the South Coast, it was sent
into a spiral of decline when holidaymakers swapped the British seaside for
the guaranteed sunshine of the Costa del Sol. It should also be said that
the planners did worse things to the town than wartime bombing raids.
  But that was then, and this is now. After a long period of static or
falling prices, property prices are up by just under 3 per cent since the
start of this year — a modest rise perhaps, but a stronger rise than in
other South Coast resorts such as Ramsgate and Hastings, according to the
property data company Hometrack. Now Folkestone is fizzing like a bottle of
pop and no mistake. Everywhere you look there are builders, hod carriers and
painters in white overalls. Shopfronts are being given a lick of paint,
windows are being cleaned and name plates polished. And it’s all down to one
man — well, one man and a few of his carefully chosen experts.
  Roger De Haan sold his Saga holiday empire two years ago and could have
found himself at a bit of a loose end, which is probably something of an
understatement when you have built up a business and then sold it for £1.35
billion. Instead he has been working ten-hour days to revitalise the
fortunes of Folkestone. “My wife says she sees less of me since I retired
than she did before,” he says.
  A keen observer of the property market for many years, De Haan recognised
that other towns and cities had transformed themselves by latching on to the
“gallery effect”, attracting artists and designers into run-down areas to
turn back the tide of dereliction. De Haan says: “I have no business
interest in this project, but I have lived all my life in Folkestone and
feel passionately about the place. I knew I could do something positive.”
  As a result, the Old High Street has been repackaged as the Creative
Quarter, attracting galleries, fashionable florists, website designers and
film production companies. De Haan’s Creative Foundation is snapping up
tatty shops and cafés as they come on to the market, sending in the builders
to make them into highly desirable showcases with living accommodation
above, painting them in bright fondant-fancy colours and then letting them
out to the right people at peppercorn rents.
  Shared studio spaces start at a very reasonable £14 a week, but the
average price is about £35 a week without accommodation. Prices for
apartments range from £400-£550 a month, depending on the size. The flats
above the galleries are very nicely done, with wooden floors, carefully
thought-out lighting and, in some cases, spectacular roof terraces big
enough to hold parties. Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? But don’t all rush at
once — anyone who applies needs to be a practising artist who will play an
active part in the regeneration process.
  “We want to build a new community,” says Peter Bettley, the quietly
dynamic PR manager of the Creative Foundation. “We have noticed that when we do up a place the people in the shops on either side start to realise that
their shop looks a bit rough by comparison, so they are raising their game
as well.”
  Carol March and Maria Smith opened their shop, Wild for Flowers, in the
Old High Street just over a year ago and say that it’s doing “fabulously
well”. They say they couldn’t have gone into business on their own without
the support of the Creative Foundation. “The rent is manageable and we feel
that we’re part of something bigger, a community of artists,” they say.
  Philip Gearing, of Foster Gearing, the design consultants involved in the
project, insists that Folkestone can reinvent itself in the way that
Barcelona did 30 years ago. He says: “There was a time when town planners
turned their backs on the sea. In Barcelona they even had a huge wall to
block it out, but then people realised that, if you embrace the water, it
gives people a good feeling. The same thing happened in Brighton and
Whitstable, to great effect.”
  Over the next ten years the new Folkestone is aiming to have a spanking
new harbour on the 14-acre site that De Haan has bought for £11 million. It
will be totally redesigned by Foster and Partners and will include a marina
for 200 yachts and a satellite campus of the University of Greenwich and
Canterbury Christ Church University. Elsewhere in the town will be a
sculpture park, a performing arts complex in Tontine Street, and several
university buildings created from Victorian warehouses.
  Talks are also in progress to add a fast ferry link to France for
passengers and cars only — the streets of Folkestone cannot cope with heavy
lorries. Add the high-speed rail link, due to open in 2009, with an hourly
service to London that will slash the fastest train journey from one hour 38
minutes to one hour three minutes and you can see why the mood in the town
is upbeat. Hey, even the seagulls look smug.
  The Creative Foundation: 01303 245799