In the second part of this series, STEVE CANAVAN meets a tycoon who thinks Blackpool is Europe’s best resort.
It would take a brave man to criticise Blackpool with Peter Sedgwick in earshot.
“It annoys me because it’s inaccurate,” says Sedgwick.
He should know for he has got his finger closer to the pulse of the town than most.
Since settling here 40 years ago, he has gradually built an entertainment empire in the resort and hit the headlines earlier in the year when he bought south and central piers.
As he already owns north, it means he has a piece of Blackpool as iconic as the Tower or the Pleasure Beach.
We have a fantastic Prom, new trams, the Tower has been done up and the Winter Gardens is putting on fantastic big shows
“I’m not trying to pretend everything is great,” Sedgwick continues on his pro-Blackpool speech. “There are parts of the town behind the scenes that need doing.
“But you can only do so much and there is absolutely no doubt at all that Blackpool is on the up.
“We hit a low seven or eight years ago. It was awful. The Promenade was run-down, the trams were run-down, the whole resort was run-down.
“But now we have a fantastic Prom, new trams, the Tower has been done up and the Winter Gardens is putting on fantastic big shows that are pulling people in.
“Last year was the busiest I have seen Blackpool in donkey’s years. The amount of people that came during half-term was unbelievable.
“We are on the up, there is no danger of that.”
Sedgwick is a likeable fella - something you can’t always say about a millionaire - and a fascinating figure.
He was born into a family of show people in 1945.
Two hundred years earlier his great grandfather had run Sedgwick’s American Menagerie, one of the first people to bring wild animals into the country and to take them from town to town.
Later the family were also one of the first to become involved in cinemascope and employed the famous Mitchell and Kenyon to film local people at work and show the results on the big screen.
Sedgwick’s parents operated rides at fairgrounds so it was no surprise that before long he too was doing the same.
A young Peter travelled the country, entrusted with operating the big wheel his family owned, and had his first encounter with Blackpool in 1961.
“I was 16 and we took the big wheel to Bonny Street,” he said. “It was my first taste of the place and I loved it straight away.”
The story goes that he proposed to wife, Sue, on north pier and said, ‘I’ll buy this for you one day’.
It was Sue who is responsible for the couple settling in town.
She too had been born into a show family which travelled the country, but suggested life would be much better in one place.
They chose to live in Blackpool.
“My uncle leased an arcade in Foxhall Square,” said Peter. “I said I wanted to buy it, so I got £20,000 together by scrimping and saving and borrowing from the bank - which was easier to do back then - and got my hands on it.
“It was a great little business but unfortunately it went downhill when they built the M55 and moved the bus station from Lytham Road.”
By that point Sedgwick - clearly a shrewd businessman, who has successfully built his empire bit by bit - had expanded his portfolio and purchased bingo and amusement arcades on the Prom.
His love affair with the piers started when he responded to an advertisement asking for someone to open a ride on south pier. Eventually he was asked to operate all the rides on the pier, then on central pier as well.
He bought north pier five years ago (keeping good that promise to his wife) and, last month, when Trevor Hemmings decided to sell - asking price £8.1m - Sedgwick added the other two.
“It sounds easy when you say it like that,” he laughs, “but it has been a long journey, it’s taken over 20 years of very hard graft.
“In this industry you work long hours, seven days a week. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life and I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got.
“To have all three piers now does feel good. It is something that deep down I think I’ve always wanted. But I think I’ve gone as far as I want to go now. Enough is enough, everyone is satisfied.”
By everyone Sedgwick means the family, for every member plays a role, eldest daughter Gaynor runs the Pyramid Centre and son Peter is in charge of south pier, while youngest daughter Renee runs central.
And what the family are acutely aware of is the responsibility they have.
North and central piers date back to the 1860s, south pier opened in 1893. They are a piece of history so important to the identity of the town and, reassuringly, Sedgwick knows it.
“We are simply looking after them, custodians in our lifetime, and then we’ll pass them on to the next generation. It is vital we remember that,” he says.
You might think the piers, with all the footfall they get during the busy, bustling summer months, are a licence to print money.
That’s not so, says Sedgwick, at least not north pier.
“We haven’t made a single penny out of it in the five years since we bought it and we probably won’t for a long while yet,” says Sedgwick.
“It’s more a labour of love because the whole family adores it. But it needs so much work, mainly underneath – new steel, sewerage pipes … it’s like a blotting paper with the money it absorbs.”
He has his fingers in many other pies, though, and does, of course, make plenty of money elsewhere.
“But what is good is that my family and I are local. We live near Stanley Park,” he says. “So it’s not as if we’re sending the money to London. We’re living here so it’s staying local.
“I think that’s one reason the town is starting to thrive again. The council has done a good job in buying lots of attractions so the money stays within the town.”
While there is no doubt Sedgwick and his family are in the business of making cash, there is also little doubt that they have Blackpool at their hearts and want to play their part in helping the glory days return to the resort.
“I just think there is no better seaside resort in Europe,” Sedgwick says. “We finish our season in November whereas every other resort in Europe will have finished as soon as the school holidays are over.
“But we then have the Illuminations and that moment on Switch-On night when they flick the switch and all those people are watching … even after all these years it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
Sedgwick is 70 now but has no plans to retire. “My dad had the Lifeboat Amusement Arcade on Lytham Road and ran it till he was about 80,” he adds. “When we finally persuaded him to give it up and relax he died soon after.
“I have a theory that when you’ve got nothing to get up for then you’re in trouble.
“So for that reason alone I’ll carry on grafting.”
As long as Sedgwick is still around, Blackpool will have one of its biggest supporters.
What does Blackpool mean to you?
The Gazette has launched a new weekly series championing and celebrating the people that make Blackpool the incomparable place it is.
The Gazette is Blackpool’s biggest supporter and will continue to be so, every day we feature your achievements and success stories.
We’re giving Sandgrown’uns and the town’s army of supporters a platform to tell us why you think Blackpool is great, why you fell in love with the place, what challenges you think it faces and why we should stand up and show the ill-informed critics a more realistic picture. We want you to get involved - tell us who you think we should feature. Who embodies the spirit of Blackpool?
Who is the every day person who can inspire others to focus on celebrating the town rather than castigate?
This is your town, your paper, your voice.
We look forward to hearing from you.
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