Watford’s indoor shopping centre has been arguably been the heartbeat of the town’s economy for years and years.

But this week’s headlines have left a rather large question mark over its future.

Intu confirmed on Friday that it has applied to appoint administrators from KPMG, after warning that it was on the verge of collapse.

The shops will stay open for now, but make no mistake intu is in big trouble.

Here we take a look back at the history of our shopping complex and how we came to where we are today.

1990 - 1992 – The Harlequin Centre opens in phases

Anyone you ask in Watford will most likely remember the Harlequin Centre. It was opened between 1990 and 1992 and several old shops in Queens Road were demolished to make way for the new shopping centre in the town.

Some shops were also forced to move, including the Trewin Brothers’ department store - now known as John Lewis - in Queens Road.

According to the department store, staff at Trewins moved out of their store in Queens Road using cages and trolleys to carry stock to a new location in Watford.

1992 – 2013 - The Harlequin Centre opens for business

And it proved to be a very successful venture in the town centre. Owned by Capital Shopping Centres, the Harlequin officially opened fully to the public in June 1992.

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It was arranged on two levels, known as the Upper and Lower Mall, with various escalators, lifts and stairs put into the centre.

Hundreds of well-known shops such as The Gadget Shop, HMV, JD Sports, Marks and Spencer’s and Sony were introduced into the centre, which also became well known for its food scene.

A food court was built in the centre and included various restaurants and cafes including Randall’s Coffee House and Little Chef Express.

And it seemed the name ‘Harlequin’ proved a hit with people in the town, with readers today believing the name should be branded on Watford’s town centre shopping mall.

2008 – The Charter Place revamp stalls

Back in September 2003, Capital Shopping Centres was chosen by Watford Borough Council to redevelop Charter Place.

Charter Place, which was based on High Street next to the Harlequin Centre, opened in 1976 and had been home to Watford Market and several shops.

The site was owned by the council, which had been looking to redevelop the site.

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But in 2008 it failed to agree with any of Capital Shopping Centre’s proposals, saying it would not allow the area to be turned into an extension of the Harlequin Centre.

The next developer appointed, London & Regional, pulled out of the scheme in 2011, saying the project was no longer “a core business requirement”.

2013 – The rebranding of the Harlequin

Watford Observer readers were left shocked back in 2013 that the Harlequin was being rebranded into the now known intu Watford.

The change occurred after Capital Shopping Centres rebranded itself into intu in 2013– and therefore the change to intu Watford from the Harlequin was made.

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When the Watford Observer first reported the news, a poll found that 95 per cent of people did not like the new intu Watford name and did not want the shopping mall to be rebranded.

But as part of a nation-wide rebranding exercise being taken, new orange intu signs were place across the shopping centre as well as the car parks.

The Harlequin name may have disappeared but many shoppers remained faithful to the original name. 

2015 – Charter Place redevelopment goes ahead

Back in 2013 intu revealed plans for Charter Place centre, with the shopping centre giants having taken over on a long lease.

The company said Charter Place will be joined under the single banner of intu Watford.

In 2014 shops and Watford Market were moved out of Charter Place to make way for the 1.4 million sq ft shopping and leisure centre.

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The Charter Place redevelopment (photo Holly Cant)

And in November 2015, the long awaited Charter Place redevelopment by intu officially began.

The extension would bring with it a new cinema, bowling alley as well as a host of new shops.

2018 – The extension is complete

Cineworld, Hollywood Bowl, numerous restaurants and shops and a huge Debenhams were all new to Watford town centre as part of the expansion, which was officially completed in 2018.

Debenhams was able to open in October 2018, while Cineworld and Hollywood Bowl both opened in December that year. H&M also opened, as well as a number of restaurants including TGI Fridays and Yo Sushi.

Watford officially became one of the top 20 shopping destinations in the country.

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In 2019 intu won an award for its £180 million expansion, with the shopping centre the winners at the Revo Gold Awards, which celebrates the best of the best in development and investment in retail property.

General Manager of intu Watford Vicki Costello said: "Our impact on the community has been significant too; we now provide 12 per cent of all jobs in our local authority and local employment rose by more than 30 per cent as a result of intu’s investment in the area.

"We have seen the desirability of Watford increase and we are very proud to have played a part in that positive story for the community."

March 2020 – intu warns it could go bust

intu Watford may have been thriving and footfall was on the rise - but it wasn’t so rosy at intu HQ.

Earlier this year in March the shopping centre giants announced that it slumped to a £2 billion annual loss and warned it could go bust if it cannot raise further funds.

intu Properties saw losses widen from £1.2 billion in 2018 to £2 billion in 2019.

It revealed that there was a "material uncertainty" over its ability to continue as it faced a cash crunch, having recently been forced to abandon plans to raise up to £1.5 billion to pay down debts.

March to May 2020 – The coronavirus lockdown

With the Government announcing the coronavirus lockdown at the end of March, businesses were left with no choice but to shut up shop.

But intu announced in May that it had only received 40 per cent of all rent and service charge for the first quarter of the year, which had been due by the end of March.

At the time, intu said it would take “robust action” against large tenants who have not paid their latest rent bills.

The situation did not help intu, which further added to their woes as debts started to stack up at the company.

June 9, 2020 – Debenhams will not reopen in Watford

This was a big blow for intu, with Debenhams confirming intu Watford’s flagship store will close permanently.

It hadn’t been open for more than two years, but Debenhams said it had been unable to agree a new rent with intu at the beginning of June.

Debenhams had entered administration earlier this year on April 9 and did not reopen all its stores across the country when they were allowed to do so.

Intu did remain hopeful that the store would be able to stay open, although the store continues to stay closed in intu Watford.

June 15, 2020 – intu Watford opens its doors to customers

intu reopened its stores to customers across the country, with the Government giving non-essential shops the green light to open again.

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At intu Watford, the first day was very busy – and by the end of the week footfall increased even more as more people seemed keen to go shopping at the weekend.

It was positive news for intu, that despite the company facing administration with a £4.5 million debt people were still keen on returning to its stores.

June 23, 2020 – intu confirms administrators are on standby

This was when intu confirmed it was putting administrators KPMG on standby, although suggested that “progress was being made” with lenders.

Intu said putting KPMG on standby was just a contingency plan, with a deadline of Friday, June 26 looming to secure a deal.

But it did caution that if it cannot reach an agreement with lenders and is placed in administration, "there is a risk that centres may have to close for a period".

However, it was confirmed to the Watford Observer that the council owns a seven per cent stake in intu Watford and also own the freehold, meaning there is more chance of the centre staying open.

June 26, 2020 – intu enters administration

Intu announced that it has tumbled into administration after failed crunch talks with its lenders.

The shopping centre owner said it has applied to appoint administrators from KPMG, after warning earlier on Friday that it was on the verge of collapse.

However, the company said its shopping centres will continue to trade for the time being despite its insolvency.

Watford Council believes intu Watford has a “sound long-term future” ahead, although the future of intu and what will happen to Watford’s shopping mall is yet to be found out.