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MARTEL MAXWELL: Mike Ashley buying Overgate Centre is exactly what Dundee needs

Controversial retail tycoon Mike Ashley is reportedly in talks to buy the Overgate Centre in Dundee. Martel Maxwell says 'bring it on'.

composite image showing Martel Maxwell and Mike Ashley and the exterior of the Overgate shopping centre in Dundee.
Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley can breathe new life into Dundee city centre, says Martel.

Rarely have I been so excited to read a news story.

It was an exclusive in the Tele this week – the announcement that retail entrepreneur Mike Ashley is poised to buy Dundee’s Overgate Shopping Centre.

As a journalist, lover of property, cheerleader for the high street and, of course, a passionate Dundonian, my mind raced.

Imagine we were talking about your football team. Who would you want as a new owner?

A billionaire with deep pockets, expertise and a proven record in the field by any chance?

Enter Mike Ashley.

The more I read, the more it makes sense – for him and us.

The writer Martel Maxwell next to a quote: "In Mike Ashley we have a man who gets things done, who has earmarked Dundee and the Overgate Centre as the place to do it."

Mike Ashley already owns Sports Direct, currently tenants in the Overgate Centre, Dundee.

Rather than pay a substantial rent to the present owners, Legal and General, he scratched his business head and thought: ‘Wouldn’t it make more sense to buy the building?’

(Particularly if he can chip it down from the £125.3 million purchase price in 2014 to the £30m reportedly being negotiated now.)

Dundee public still needs shops – and Mike Ashley knows what makes them tick

So why the massive knock down in price?

As we know, the high street shopping market is – at least compared to a decade ago – on its knees.

Mike Ashley.
Mike Ashley has his eye on Dundee.

The Amazons of the world – and the many chains who have invested in their websites – have taken a huge share of the retail pot.

And many well-known shops – from national giants like Debenhams, to local independents – have been forced to close.

But there is a still a need for traders providing the goods and services you can’t buy online.

That explains the popularity of coffee shops, hairdressers and nail salons in Dundee along with every city and town in the UK.

There are still plenty of reasons why people might want to take a bus or drive into the city centre.

shoppers entering the Debenhams store in Dundee.
The Debenhams store was a highlight of the Overgate Centre.

We all have a need to connect with people; to feel fabric in our hands, to sniff a scoosh of perfume.

And so, a destination centre – offering experiences you can’t click to pay – makes perfect sense.

Can Mike Ashley restore the department store to the Dundee high street?

Add to the mix the other successful brands within Mike Ashley’s Fraser’s Group portfolio. We’re talking big names such as Sports Direct, House of Fraser, GAME, Evans Cycle.

In the six months to the end of October last year, the group reported sales increased by 12.7% to £2.64 billion, while pre-tax profits were up 53% to £284.6 million.

Ashley is making a success story of buying struggling companies at knock-down prices and building them back up – just like the property investors who wait for a recession to buy low and sell higher.

Mike Ashley, arms folded, outside a Sports Direct store.
Mike Ashley is perhaps best known as the boss of Sports Direct. Image: Joe Giddens/PA.

The Overgate would be Mike Ashley’s first shopping centre on this scale. But he sees something worth investing in and making brilliant again right here in Dundee.

It has 60 retail units. So there’s plenty room for his own brands – as well as the potential to bring in an income from other tenants.

There are also rumblings of turning it into a destination, adding a cinema along with some sort of activity hub.

This sort of development wouldn’t just attract people from Dundee – it would bring in visitors from further afield and boost our city’s economy.

I’d wager the new owners of the Wellgate may be worrying this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.

exterior of Wellgate Centre, Dundee.
The future of Dundee’s Wellgate Centre has also been up for debate. Image: Steve MacDougall / DC Thomson.

But Dundee has been seen as the poor relation to other cities for too long.

Any investment should be welcomed and I like to think other shops in the Wellgate and elsewhere would benefit from a general uplift of the city’s fortunes.

Make Dundee shopping great again

Maybe Mike Ashley would want to bring in a Frasers. And suddenly we could have a department store in Dundee again.

Do you find this as thrilling as me?

Do you also hold the fondest of memories from Arnotts or Debenhams or those that came before?

Compare the city centre we remember to what we have now.

black and white photo of Arnotts store and a street full of shoppers in Dundee in 1972.
A pavement thick with shoppers outside the Arnotts store in Dundee in 1972.

Consider the departures from the Overgate alone – no more Mango, Gap and Debenhams.

Picture all the empty retail spaces and the people thrown out of work.

And now think about the hundreds of jobs that could be created.

The Saturday afternoon shopping trips made exciting again.

The relieved husbands who can once more ask a beauty assistant to help them find something for their wife’s birthday.

Such hopes for our city centre might have seemed a bit pie in the sky before, given the current climate.

But in Mike Ashley we have a man who gets things done, who has earmarked Dundee and the Overgate Centre as the place to do it.

And I for one can’t wait.

Let me know if it’s a sentiment you share. And I’d love to hear your memories from shopping in Dundee.