SITTING amongst a hive of activity, Whiteley centre manager Neil Carter is like a proud father.
Workmen are frantically hammering, the sound of their electric drills fill the air.
Merchandisers are dressing windows with eye-catching displays and cleaners are polishing every single surface — inside and out.
This is just a few days before the grand opening of the new shopping centre, one that has cost a staggering £84million.
Such is the scale of the build, big name brands such as Marks and Spencers, Topshop and Next all have prominent stores.
Other well-known names such as JD Sports, Schuh, Paperchase, H&M and Boots are all packed with teams of workers preparing their shops for Thursday’s grand opening.
The shopping centre has even persuaded names such as Tiger, a gift shop with 226 stores in 18 countries, to open its first store in the area.
Speaking calmly and wearing a pristine suit, Neil shows no sign of the incredible pressure he must be under. The only clue being the steady trickle of men in high-vis jackets and hard hats that interrupt every 10 minutes to ask instructions or to gain his signature.
In fact, there have been nearly 2,000 construction workers and specialists contractors involved in getting this site ready.
Not that this stresses Neil, who at 40 years old is a seasoned pro at shopping centre openings.
‘This is the second scheme I have opened,’ he says.
‘It’s obviously a challenge to get everything open on time but there’s been no real problems. To be honest, it’s been realtively smooth.
‘Everyone from the construction workers to the project managers have worked hard.
‘It’s really just topping and tailing and putting the finishing touches on now, so I’m really looking forward to opening day.
‘We are over 90 per cent let and have close to 50 stores opening, with others coming on board soon.’
It’s not all light and happy, Neil and the centre have faced strong criticisms from both local residents and neighbouring authorities.
Residents are worried that shoppers’ cars will overflow into their roads, especially with a five hour cap on the car park and an unclear set of instructions for workers.
Neighbouring authorities, such as Fareham, worried that the sheer scale of the development will cripple their own town centres.
During a phone-in on a local radio station, concerns were also raised over the amount of bus services that will feed the centre.
‘We have an allocation of parking for people that work on the site and we are working with retailers to find out what they require,’ says Neil.
He says that the car parks will be monitored by automatic number plate recognition service, which will be able to tell who works at the centre by a database stored on the system, so no need for any permits.
For shoppers, the first three hours are free, with each extra hour costing £1, up to a five hour limit.
Charges operate between 8am and 6pm, so no need to worry if you decide to stop for dinner after shopping.
As for buses, Neil says, ‘We are working with the bus companies and councillors to work out the best service. We need to provide a demand for the bus companies to invest in services. This has started now and will continue.’
The centre will also have a pick up and drop off point near Frankie & Benny’s, which can be used for people ordering taxis.
Neil says, ‘With any new scheme people will have concerns because it is the unknown. We have a team in place that will monitor everything that happens and work through these concerns.
‘It’s not in our interests to create problems in the community as the community are our customers.’
Another two people who are excited about the opening are Andrea Marshall and Emma Rowsell.
The ‘mumprenuers’ from Stubbington hope to replicate the success of their Warsash shop, Little Soles.
The local ladies have been getting their store ready for Thursday, and have been so busy Emma hasn’t even had time to plan for her 39th birthday, which is today.
‘It kind of pales into insignificance,’ she says.
Andrea, 43, says, ‘It still doesn’t feel quite real.’
One restaurant that has been cashing in on all the on-site activity is the Harvester restaurant.
At just 23, manager James Gates is full of enthusiasm for his new store. So much so, that the restaurant was the first to open last weekend and the staff have been practising the menu on all the centre workers.
James says, ‘The whole point was to get some feed back and sort out any teething issues. I can’t really explain how excited I am.’
With all these new stores opening up around him, which shop is manager and proud father Neil looking forward to opening most?
‘I’m quite excited about Tiger. They change their stock frequently and there’s always something for everyone, and it’s good value.’
Whiteley Shopping Centre officially opens on Thursday, May 23.
After that, it will be open Monday to Friday 9am until 8pm, Saturday 9am until 7pm and Sunday 11am until 5pm.
The restaurants will be open until 10.30pm.
Opening day timetable
10am - Centre opens with a live broadcast from Wave FM at The Treehouse with DJ Mark Collins.
10am - Starting at 10am and lasting all day is a treasure-hunt style contest called The Treehouse Trail. The first 1,500 children to take part will receive a free pair of ears and a tail as a prize on completion. There will be craft events for all the family to enjoy at The Treehouse throughout the day.
10am - The first 20 customers to take their old shoes to Schuh will receive a £75 gift voucher.
All day Schuh will be offering customers the chance to swap their old shoes in exchange for a £10 voucher.
10am - JD Sports will have a DJ playing and will be offering the chance to win free trainers for a year.
10.15am - Winners of the Whiteley story writing competition from Whiteley Primary School will be presented with their certificates by centre manager, Neil Carter.
10.45am - Whiteley retailers, British Land CEO, Chris Grigg, and USS head of property, Graham Burnett, commence the countdown to the official opening.
11am - Whiteley is officially opened.
The opening ceremony to mark the launch will feature giant carrier bags, aerial acrobats, a cascade of confetti and a musical performance.
11.30am - Celebrity mum and TV star Denise Van Outen will be opening the Mamas & Papas store.
Denise will be reading part of her latest book Bumpalicious and signing copies. The first 30 customers will receive a goody bag.
2.45pm, 3.45pm and 4.45pm - a surprise musical display will take over Whiteley Shopping Centre.
7.45pm - The entertainment returns to the stage with an acrobatic display and live music.
Throughout the day there will be street entertainment including Top Bananas, a stilt walking band of musicians and the crazy antics of Granny Turismo racing on Segways.
There’s also balloon modelling, food and drink sampling, glowing peacocks and much, much more
History of the site
WHITELEY is no stranger to shopping centres.
The previous outlet village stood on exactly the same spot as the new shopping centre.
Often deserted, the village was a flop and closed after 12 years in July 2011. It was demolished in the autumn and work begun shortly after to create the new centre.
The only building that remained unchanged was the nearby Tesco’s supermarket.
Stores that have made the jump from the old centre to the new are Frankie & Benny’s, Clinton Cards, Claire’s Accessories, Sports Direct, Trespass and Starbucks.
Hazel McGaw, 36, from Whiteley, used to work in the Pilot clothing store. She has now found a job at Little Soles, the children’s shoe shop.
Hazel said: ‘The new centre is completely different. It was quite overwhelming to come back and see how much has changed.’
Her new co-worker, Danni Sims, 26, from Buchan Avenue, Whiteley, has also found work at Little Soles. She used to work for Clinton Cards.
Danni said: ‘I really wanted to come back. Towards the end of the outlet village, it was like a ghost town. At one point there were about four of five furniture shops, there wasn’t enough choice.
‘There was nothing to draw people here. It’s definitely better now.
‘It’s totally different.’
Neighbouring Fareham Borough Council tried to halt proceedings by claiming the new plans – first revealed back in 2008 – would have a detrimental impact on its own town centre.
It lodged an appeal with the Government Office for the South East (GOSE) who refused to call it in, leaving the way clear for the £84million British Land redevelopment.