Tyne and Wear's sale of the century

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The Independent Online
FOR SALE: one town centre with historic links, close to prest- igious shopping centre, offering excellent road and footpath access, extensive office facilities, top-of-the-range bowling alley and petrol station. Would suit heritage-seeking US buyer.

The busy commercial hub of Washington, Tyne & Wear, has gone on the market in an unique sale, and is expected to fetch a cool pounds 70m. The town, home to five generations of ancestors of America's first president, George Washington, is being sold by Hermes, the Post Office pension fund. Washington was last visited by a US president in May 1977 when Jimmy Carter arrived on a goodwill visit.

Hermes is putting the 66-acre commercial heart of the town on the market along with the roads, footpaths, petrol station and office block as part of the winding-up of a five-year closed end fund. But the purchaser will not get the police station or the library.

Bruce Nuttman, of marketing agents DTZ Debenham Thorpe, said: "I've never come across a whole town centre being sold before. It's attracting considerable interest from the larger funds and property companies."

The sale is a one-off opportunity for a pension fund or property company to buy an entire town centre including, unusually, the freehold of most of the roads. Subject to the agreement of Sunderland council, this gives the new owner complete freedom to reshape the shopping in the town, pitching it as a regional centre to compete with nearby Sunderland and Newcastle- upon-Tyne.

An enlarged shopping scheme in the town would, however, face competition from the Bridge shopping centre in Sunderland, which its owner, Land Securities, is to double in size to 500,000sq ft.

The modern centre of Washington was sold to Hermes in 1986 when the Washington Development Corporation was wound up. Since then, the fund has developed leisure attractions such as a bowling alley but the main asset is the 500,000sq ft Galleries shopping centre. It boasts the UK's first SavaCentre and an Asda store.

A fortnight ago Asda announced a joint venture with developers Gazeley to expand the Washington store. The company is building a 250,000sq ft distribution centre, which will create 500 new jobs. The Galleries, the retail park and office block produce pounds 6m a year.