Off with her head! How Mary Queen of Shops enraged Margate's traders
Retail guru is accused of putting needs of her TV show above those of the resort she is trying to save
Her charisma, drive and retail savvy were meant to rejuvenate some of Britain's most deprived towns. But residents of Margate are rising up against Mary Portas, claiming she is putting the interests of her television company before their own.
The down-at-heel Kent seaside resort was one of 12 "Portas pilot towns" selected to receive £100,000 to revive its flagging High Street.
In her role as the Government's high-street tsar, tasked by David Cameron with creating "town teams" to develop businesses, the Queen of Shops concluded that Margate is "practically dying".
She has big ideas to transform the community, turning empty shops into an enterprise centre, helping instal free public wi-fi and opening a quality market with "pop-up" stalls for local entrepreneurs. But Portas will also bring a Channel 4 film crew and the producers want to impose "gagging" terms on local businesses which participate.
Storeholders may not use social media to discuss their involvement and must let the producers, Optomen TV, examine their finances.
There are also fears that her focus on trendy boutiques ignores the ingrained social problems of a town scarred by poverty, where 36 per cent of shops are either boarded-up or empty. The Margate Town Team, which put together the successful bid, fears that "the desires of a TV production company are being placed above the needs of a community in transition".
It is "confused and concerned" about the involvement of the television company, with its "overly restrictive contracts which seem to want to quash and silence" public involvement.
At a meeting this week, Portas warned residents against shunning the publicity that television exposure will bring. "You either let the cameras in with me or I get back on the train and some other town gets it," she said.
Tony, who runs the last surviving High-Street grocery store, could be one of Portas's stars. "She came in so I asked her what she thought was wrong," he said. "She said, 'It's very sparsely stocked'. But you can see how bad we're doing – there's no trade and no one's spending anything. Takings are 90 per cent down." However Tony will sign up for the Portas makeover. "Good for her if she can bring Margate back to what it was."
Residents say the High Street died when Marks & Spencer relocated to the out-of-town Westwood Cross centre. What's left is a jumble of hair, tanning and nail salons, a discount store and a Cheque Centre.
Matt, store manager of JC Rook, the butcher, said: "You can't turn the town into something it is not. People here don't have an awful lot of money. There's no point creating lots of high-end clothing boutiques."
Margate is divided between the "top end" and the seafront Old Town, which is home to a thriving new community of artists' galleries, shops and pavement cafés. "It's all about the bottom end of the town," said Jay, popping into the auto accessories store run by her husband, Dave. "They want to turn it into a European style café society. But they forget about us here."
Portas has asked Optomen to review the most restrictive elements of the contracts. Her veiled threat to pull out of Margate was "heat of moment stuff with a camera stuck in [my] face".
The Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed that Margate will get the £100,000, even if the town withdraws from the series.
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