The Ridings Shopping Centre in Wakefield, which celebrates its 30th anniversary today, was inspired by buildings that Wakefield Council’s chief planning officer, Peter Spawforth, had visited in America and Canada.
It took four years to complete and was built with a unique design so that shoppers could enter and exit from the street on all levels.
The centre boasted the first food court in the UK and the first glass wall climber lift, which was an exact copy of those in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta.
It was so popular that people would queue up to use it and the centre had to employ someone on busy days specifically to ride the lift to ensure priority was given to those less able to use the steps or escalators.
More than 4,000 people walked through the doors on the Sunday before the official opening, even though it was before Sunday trading hours were introduced and they couldn’t shop.
The following year, the Ridings Centre was named European Shopping Centre of the Year, an accolade it went on to win for the next decade.
These days the retail climate is much tougher and the shopping centre has had to compete with newer rivals as well as the global economic financial crisis and the decline of the high street.
However, shopping centre manager Barbara Winston has continued to strive to boost the prospects of The Ridings with new ideas. “There has been a change of direction and most of that has been market-driven,” she said. “We’re now keen to add value for shoppers through craft fairs, a monthly Yorkshire market, flash mobs and other family entertainment.”
At least 12 million shoppers visit the centre every year and it has retained some of its original retailers including Marks and Spencer, BHS, Boots and Morrisons.
Two years ago, the £210m Trinity Walk shopping centre, opened in Wakefield, luring some stores away from the Ridings. But Mrs Winston said The Ridings and Trinity Walk complement rather than compete with each other.
Mrs Winston said: “People assume that any losses at the Ridings are due to Trinity Walk. We lost some units when it first opened but actually Trinity Walk was massively successful for us, although the market turned.”
She added: “We have been successful in filling our voids.”
As well focusing on well-known chains, Mrs Winston is also keen to boost the number of independent retailers at the centre.
Two years ago she introduced the pop-up shop concept and now about 25 per cent of stores are independents, including a growing number of co-operative-run stores.
“I would like to increase that number,” she said. “We want to support independent retailers.”
The centre has 100 shops in total. There are currently five empty units but two more stores are due to open soon.
Mrs Winston is used to championing independent retailers. She was instrumental in opening the Corn Exchange in Leeds in the early nineties.
“They are quite a cliquey club and once word gets out that a landlord is supporting independents people start ringing you up,” she said.
“It takes a lot of work to support independents but it pays off in the end.”
This new approach has meant The Ridings has had to lower rents and lease terms. “That’s true with everyone, though,” said Mrs Winston. “Every landlord has had to be more flexible with rental agreements.”
However, she remains optimistic about the future of The Ridings: “I am very positive,” she said. “I can see units that are opening. Renewals for existing tenants are at 85 per cent and we have two tenants expanding.”
Primark is boosting the size of its store to 28,500 sq ft, a 40 per cent increase in its retail space when it expands into two neighbouring units next year. “It shows there is confidence in what we are doing,” said Mrs Winston.
In addition, The Ridings last weekend saw bumper takings as shoppers flocked to the centre.Mrs Winston said: “Normally, Christmas shopping doesn’t start until the end of November/December but shops are talking about how well they did.
“We had lots of entertainment which brings people in. One retailer rang to arrange a meeting to talk about taking another unit.”
She added: “Things are getting more positive in the news and we are more optimistic.”
The centre is celebrating its milestone with a party tonight for employees past and present.
Mrs Winston, who has been at the centre for five years, said: “We have been celebrating the four decades in which the centre has been open for the last four weeks with different themes.
“It’s a significant milestone and one we’re all very proud of.”
A tourist attraction
The water feature which surrounded the bottom of the glass lift at the Ridings Centre attracted a lot of interest from shoppers.
A blog on the centre’s website recalls some of the memories:
“Once, we had an event with Black Lace (the Euro pop band who sang Agadoo) and as part of the activity Philip of Philips Hair Salons was giving someone a makeover,” it said. “As there was no mains water available they had to have their head washed with water from the pond. Not sure that they would get away with that today!”
The lift was a tourist attraction in itself. The cleaning team used to have to ride up and down on the top of the lift to carry out the cleaning of the pod and the glass surround.
Peter Spawforth, who was the chief planning officer at Wakefield council, was awarded an MBE following his part in the design of the Ridings Centre.