25 years ago today: Meadowhall opens for business

Meadowhall Shopping Centre, Sheffield, under construction in 1990
Meadowhall Shopping Centre, Sheffield, under construction in 1990
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TODAY, Leeds might have Trinity with all its swanky restaurants and designer names, but 25 years ago it was another part of Yorkshire that was celebrating the opening of a new shopping centre.

For the forerunner to retail complexes like Trinity was Meadowhall – the North American shopping experience transplanted to an industrial wasteland north of Sheffield in the shadow of the Tingley Viaduct.

The ambitious scheme was the brainchild of two Yorkshire businessmen, Eddie Healey and Paul Sykes.

But while questions lingered over whether the motorway roadworks would be lifted, Eddie’s mind was on the finer detail. His opening shot at our morning conference was this: “Have you got Blue Velvet by Bobby Vinton?” Eddie Healey was a successful and fabulously wealthy property developer, but his heart, it seemed to me, was in showbusiness.

Two years before, he had thrown a party at his home in Hull and booked Belinda Carlisle and Rowan Atkinson.

He had been to Canada to marvel at the huge malls there, and brought their creators back to Sheffield to design the template for Meadowhall. And he had commissioned a video wall – the biggest money could buy – as the showpiece for his food court. That’s why I was there: seconded from Yorkshire TV to make programmes and procure music videos for this electronic edifice.

Meadowhall Shopping Centre, Sheffield, under construction in 1990

Meadowhall Shopping Centre, Sheffield, under construction in 1990

“My hobby’s pop music,” Eddie said, by way of explaining his Bobby Vinton fixation. It was, said Eddie, what people would want to see on the video wall while glancing up from their burgers and chips.

“We need the top five singles every week on that screen,” he decreed. “And I Should Be So Lucky by Kylie Minogue.” That was already a golden oldie, but you didn’t argue with Eddie.

From a distance of 25 years, it’s hard to imagine why the content of a video wall should have been anything more than a footnote on someone’s Filofax, let alone the boss’s pet project. But, though they hadn’t invented the phrase yet, Eddie liked to micro-manage. And he did it with such natural charm that no-one seemed to mind at all.

Meadowhall, for all its rampant commercialism, was a rare attempt, largely by him, to fashion a retail environment in which shops and showbusiness could co-exist. One early success was the Rock Island Diner, an American-style restaurant where the waitresses danced on tables to tunes from Grease. And then there was the Meadowhall TV studio created with the idea of broadcasting a Friday night show live.

Meadowhall Shopping Centre, Sheffield, under construction in 1990

Meadowhall Shopping Centre, Sheffield, under construction in 1990

Eddie Healey almost hadn’t built a shopping centre in Sheffield at all. His plan had been to erect something called Retail World on the former Parkgate steelworks at Rotherham. Meadowhall, meanwhile, was a rival development dreamed up by another wealthy developer, Paul Sykes. It was only when the two men joined forces that the sprawl we now recognise as Meadowhall came to be.

The tenants themselves comprised the usual high street suspects: Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, C&A. Mobile phone shops, cappuccino bars and other Nineties inventions were on no-one’s horizon. And nothing was open on Sundays.

Nevertheless, it drew the punters from the start. They queued for miles down the M1 to get in. And that’s when Meadowhall discovered that shopping was showbusiness. They didn’t need the frills after all.

What do you think of Meadowhall? Has it been good for Yorkshire? Share your thoughts below.