Since buying Eastbourne Pier for an undisclosed sum in October last year, the Victorian gem’s owner has proven to be a controversial figure.
While some have welcomed 70-year-old hotelier Sheikh Abid Gulzar buying the pier in the aftermath of the devastating fire, others have raised concerns about the future of Eastbourne’s favourite landmark.
Uncertainty about the long-term future of the pier remains – over what will happen to its businesses and if we will ever see a replacement to the destroyed Blue Room.
Many of these questions were put to Mr Gulzar when he featured on BBC television’s Inside Out on Monday.
Mr Gulzar later told the Herald, “Look, the main thing is that beautiful Eastbourne was featured on BBC1. People were talking about our great town, and I think in a really positive way.”
Mr Gulzar took over from the previous owners, Crown Entertainment Centres, who had put the pier on the market after a planning dispute over a proposed fairground.
The previous owners, formerly Cuerden Leisure, said the decision not to allow the fairground had made it impossible to recoup the £4 million they claimed to have spent repairing the fire damage.
Many feared the pier would go unsold and be allowed to fall into disrepair. But in October Mr Gulzar – who owns two hotels on Eastbourne seafront – revealed he had bought the pier for an undisclosed sum.
The BBC show focused on his time as the pier owner and some of the public reaction to the purchase.
During the broadcast Mr Gulzar – who is well-known for his distinctive dress sense and gold-plated cars – told BBC reporter Vince Rogers he wanted to bring his unique style to the decorations on the pier.
He said, “100 per cent it will be tasteful – just like my nice, beautiful tie and my car – and why not? I think we need to put some colour in our life and I’m doing it.”
True to his word, the decorations fit the hotelier’s own signature style, with gold-painted lion heads on the lampposts and a banner at the exit thanking guests for visiting ‘Sheikh’s Pier’.
For some, these changes have proved unpopular. Among them is local resident Michael Harris, an outspoken critic of Mr Gulzar.
Speaking to the BBC he said, “The people of Eastbourne are very fond of their pier and they don’t want it full of glitz.
“To have a sign up there saying thanks for visiting Sheikh’s Pier is the sort of thing that is going to get up the nose of practically most of the community in Eastbourne.”
Mr Harris’s views are shared by many in the town including film student Luke Gardner, who created a video letter criticising the hotelier’s approach to the pier.
The video, which calls on Mr Gulzar to be more sensitive to public opinion in Eastbourne, was seen by tens of thousands within a few days on social media and led to an increased focus .
A student at Sussex Downs College, Mr Gardner said he was surpised the video had struck such a chord with people. He said, “I only ever expected it to get about a thousand views or so but I’ve been getting notification after notification.
“It took me a few weeks to actually write the letter as I wanted to think really carefully about the message I got across. I didn’t want it to come across as an attack.
“I don’t think the pier should be run as a business as it is a landmark. When people move to Eastbourne, they move here because of the pier as well as the town.”
Mr Gulzar has also came under severe criticism for his decision to stop fishing from the end of the pier.
Speaking to the Herald last year, AT Tackle owner Arran Aghili said the decision had left him devastated.
He said, “I asked if we could move to another shop further down the pier while the works were going on but he wouldn’t listen to me.
“I had lots of suggestions of how we could keep the business open but he wouldn’t listen at all.”
A petition calling on Mr Gulzar to rethink the decision has gathered more than 2,300 signatures since November.
Speaking about the decision in November, Mr Gulzar claimed he was closing the fishing platform for safety reasons.
He said, “Let me be clear – some of the area at that end of the pier is very dangerous.
“It has been neglected in the past, and as the new owner it is my job to take full responsibility for this.
“I would not be doing my job properly as the new owner if I did not take this action.
“We are all very well aware of the fatality on the pier last year and I would not like anything of this nature to be repeated.”
Asked if he was ‘booting’ Mr Aghili and the fishing shop off the pier by the BBC, Mr Gulzar said, “It’s a very harsh and a strong word; booting.
“I dare not boot anyone out. I want to make sure heavy work is done to improve and bring it to its original glory so that the big ships can come and people can go on a trip and make it more viable.”
Mr Gulzar also came under fire recently after he claimed Prime Minister David Cameron promise of a £2 million Government tourism grant had been intended to support the owner of the pier. Mr Gulzar claimed the Prime Minister had promised the sum during a private conversation during his visit to see the damage done to the pier.
He said, “I spoke to David Cameron when he visited our great town, and he left me under no illusion that this money would go to whoever owned the pier.”
It later emerged that the money had only been released to the town after a business case, which broke down where the money would be spent, was approved by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Mr Gulzar’s claim has also been refuted by both Eastbourne Borough Council and Eastbourne MP Caroline Ansell.
Responding to the claim Mrs Ansell said, “The money was pledged to help all of Eastbourne following the fire, those who lost their jobs because of the fire, for example, and to help Eastbourne continue to be a tourist destination.
“The money was never allocated to the owners of the pier past or present because the pier was fully insured.
“In fact, this £2 million grant has now all been allocated after Eastbourne Borough Council made a business case to the Department of Communities and Local Government which then released the funds.
“The recipients of this money have been public knowledge for some time and it does include £65,000 allocated to the repair of the Camera Obscura on the pier, but those are the only funds going directly to the pier from this money.”
Other projects funded by the money include a new restaurant at the Wish Tower, a website redesign and a statue of remembrance of the fire.
While his critics have their concerns, there is no doubt Mr Gulzar intends to make the pier into a hotspot for tourism in the region. Shortly after exchanging contracts on the structure in October, Mr Gulzar said, “Eastbourne is a wonderful town full of wonderful people and I want the pier to be wonderful as well.
“We were all devastated when the big fire hit the pier last summer and it was never going to be easy to recover from that. But it has, and now I have bought it, Eastbourne Pier will flourish in a big way.
“We have massive plans to improve and enhance the pier, much of which are in the early stages, but make no mistake – Eastbourne Pier will be the talk of the town.”
Perhaps the biggest step he has taken to publicise the pier came with a special ceremony where the pier was blessed by the Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Rev Richard Jackson.
Speaking to the BBC at the ceremony the Bishop summed-up the challenge Mr Gulzar faces. He said, “It’s a difficult decision when you are looking after a money pit like this as to how you are going to balance the needs of the community with the obvious financial needs to maintain the place and enhance it for future generations.
“So I think probably me being here to pray for him was quite a good thing to do.”
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