INDEPENDENT shopkeepers at the Whitgift Centre are feeling the squeeze as Croydon's new £1 billion shopping outlet draws closer. The Westfield/Hammerson project was granted planning permission in November last year and although the new centre will pave the way for 5,000 new jobs, current traders will inevitably be disrupted. With uncertainty surrounding the redevelopment's start date, concerned business owners such as Rico Caleap, owner of the Classic Cafe, are worried about their futures. He said: "With the new Westfield coming I will probably be out of business from next year. I don't know if I will even make it through to Christmas. "Croydon will change and no doubt the Westfield centre will be good for the future of Croydon but it will unfortunately impact on local people like me." Although Mr Caleap appreciates the positive impact the redevelopment will have on the area, he called on Croydon Council to assist smaller shops and businesses such as his at this time. He added: "I would just like to see the council supporting the businesses that are already here as well as pushing through new ideas. "We have to look after what we already have before we can improve on it." The council already has a number of initiatives in place for independent traders and a spokesperson said it is planning to increase its support for existing businesses. The spokesman said: "We're actively working with local independent businesses as we recognise how important they are to the town. "They help lend the area its unique character and their role in the area's future cannot be understated. "We want to see them grow and prosper and we'll look to find ways they can benefit from the planned £1 billion investment project." A spokesman for the Croydon Partnership, the group formed by Westfield and Hammerson, said they are currently in talks with all Whitgift retailers to discuss their future plans and to ensure the regeneration of Croydon is for the benefit of all businesses. He said: "We understand the importance of encouraging local enterprise and ensuring that Croydon's retail centre has a very broad reaching appeal to consumers." Despite Westfield's promises and the council's efforts, many traders feel they have been left in the dark over plans for the centre. Florist Kathy Page runs Pure Flowers, which has been in the Whitgift Centre for more than 40 years. She described the situation as a very uncertain time for her business. She told the Advertiser: "At this stage I cannot say too much as no one really knows what is going to happen when Westfield comes in. "Right now we are unsure if we will be staying here or if we will have to leave." Similarly Jamie Verrinder, owner of Aquazoo aquarium shop, said unanswered questions about the Whitgift's Centre's future is piling pressure on independent traders. He said: "We are in a state of limbo. The aim for everyone now is to try to survive from now until the day comes when we are out and we get compensation. "The problem most people will have is staying afloat from now until that day. Uncertainty is cruel." , and right now we are all uncertain about our futures." Aquazoo was established in the centre in 1971 and Mr Verrinder has run the shop since taking over from his father in 2001. "The only way for Croydon to move forward in this day and age is to follow the money and unfortunately that is not with the local traders anymore," added Mr Verrinder. "I am happy to stay until the bitter end, whenever that may be, but I am concerned that a lot of local businesses won't be financially able to play the waiting game for much longer."
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