Photo: The former Empire Cinemas in Sunderland with the closure notice on its door. Photo submitted to SGM by Will Raley.
What was known as the Sunniside development was one of the first areas of the city centre to experience a targeted strategy of urban regeneration.
Sunniside was the town’s traditional business district and once home to its central post office. In the 20th century, the area declined as the westward expansion of Sunderland negated its traditional eastern side. This made it a primary focus of the Paul Watson led council’s goals to renew the city.
Starting in the first decade of the 2000s, the area was subject to a masterplan by the now defunct regeneration company known as “Sunderland Arc”. At first, it claimed some considerable and notable successes, including a total refurbishment of the Sunniside Gardens area including a new sculpture, lights and fountains. Seeking to make it as a new hub for small and creative businesses, the area experienced a mini rejuvenation.
In addition to this, on High Street East, a number of entertainment and restaurant provisions were opened. This started with the new cinema in 2004, a Frankie and Bennys restaurant, followed by Nandos, Sunderland Bowl and the Casino. A mini entertainment quarter in line with the council’s vision had sprung up.
However, things have not gone to plan, and challenging economic times has seen the development stagnate over the past 15 years. First, the restaurant spaces, with the exception of Nandos, have failed repeatedly. On the long facing unit facing High Street East, every single restaurant that has opened up in the space has closed down in a short space of time. After the more iconic Big Luke’s shut down, a German themed bar and next, a pizza buffet also failed. Next to it, the giant restaurant space which was occupied by Chinese buffet “Lui Lui” was also gone by 2018.
Moreover, Frankie and Benny’s, in line with its own nation wide financial difficulties, also shut down. This has left a long line of restaurant units empty, which has now been added to by the cinema itself. Nandos is the only survivor. This is an extremely worrying premise for Sunderland City Centre.
There are a number of factors behind why this is happening. First of all, the British economy is in a poor condition and is suffering a large scale decline of city centre based retail as shopping habits change. This is inflicting attrition on city centres. COVID has only made it worse. In the last few years Sunderland has lost the Disney Store and Debenhams amongst other things. The only reasons to shop and be in Sunderland are being increasingly stripped away.
Secondly, surging inflation and costs of living has eroded people’s incomes and suppressed consumption. This inevitably means less appetite to eat out at restaurants deemed overpriced (and Frankie and Benny’s was very overpriced!), and a bigger shift towards streaming as opposed to the cinema. This in turn has all added to the continuing problems of getting people into the city centre in the first place, causing an uphill battle for all but the most successful restaurants. In Sunderland, the rule is that small and high quality independent restaurants can thrive, but chain restaurants suffer.
Next, Sunniside is suffering because of its geographic isolation, being to the less busy eastern side of the city centre which has been left behind as the centre of gravity has moved westwards in the 20th century. While the council aspired to reinvigorate the area and get people there again, this has only been a partial success and now the closure of the cinema will drastically reduce the presence of people in the area, threatening the business of Nandos in the process. As it was already, it was never enough for other restaurants to survive.
As the council have now shifted their priority and strategy to the “Riverside Sunderland” area, efforts to try and rebuild Sunniside have already long come to an end, with the redevelopment having been the brainchild of a former council leadership, and a regional company which following government funding cuts, no longer exists. This means there is no vision for the future of this area and if the cinema building is not acquired by another company, it looks bleak.
Thus, even though there are many positive things to shout about going on in Sunderland right now, old problems, including a lacklustre national economic environment, are continuing to haunt the city centre and cause problems. More than ever we desperately need a new impetus to attract people to Sunderland to eat, work and enjoy themselves. Will the Riverside Sunderland projects pull it off? Only time will tell.