“I’ve never been a believer that Meadowhall killed Sheffield City Centre - it was tired and under pressure long before it came along. What Meadowhall did was help Sheffield to define what its future could be.”
When Meadowhall opened in 1990, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce’s executive director Richard Wright was working just down the road, at Sheffield Forgemasters, and saw an area suffering from the demise of the steel and coal industries transformed into the home of one of the country’s first major out of town shopping centres.
Alongside Brent Cross in London and Gateshead’s Metro Centre, the mega mall marked a new era for retail. Did that mean the demise of Sheffield City Centres nearby? Mr Wright doesn’t think so - that damage was already done.
But Meadowhall came along during a decade when Sheffield was a city on the up - hosting the World Student Games in 1991, and with Lord Bob Kerslake’s arrival as council chief executive kicking off an era of regeneration for the city centre, with the Millennium Gallery, Peace Gardens and Winter Gardens all taking shape. Though the city centre shopping offer never quite met up to that of neighbouring cities.
However, three decades later, the city centre is now finally starting to have the retail regeneration some say is decades overdue - and one that meets the evolved needs of the online shopping, coffee shop frequently, city living generation.
The well-documented failure of Sheffield Retail Quarter is now firnly in the past, with major regeneration on The Moor in the shape of a new market and a cinema complex, and plans now well underway for the council’s flagship regeneration scheme Heart of the City II, a mix of office space, residential property, restaurants, public space and of course, retail. But it won’t be the focus.
Mr Wright said: “Customers love Meadowhall because they can do all their shopping in one place, undercover. That’s not what city centres should be about - they are destinations. That’s why Heart of the City II is so important, it’s a true mix of retail, residential, restaurants and public spaces, a place where families will want to visit. Meadowhall isn’t about that.
“When you come to the city centre, you might do a bit of shopping, but you’re going to the theatre, to attend events, to enjoy the public space, There’s been societal change.
“Meadowhall has been massive for the city - there are a lot cities across Britain that would love to have a Meadowhall. It brings people into the region and it’s been brilliant for Sheffield.”
At its peak times, Meadowhall employs 8,500 people, and it is responsible for 18 per cent of all business rates paid to the council.
Darren Peace has worked for Meadowhall for 25 years, the last decade as centre director. He has always had a “collaborative” outlook, working with the council, other major businesses like Sheffield International Venues and the city’s theatres.
“We are all stakeholders in the city,” he said. “We embrace all the assets in the city, and work actively with the big players to drive the experience agenda.
“When Meadowhall came along, it was ploughing a great field, as one of the first. Back then, we didn’t open on Sundays and most shops didn’t open into the evenings. Locations like Meadowhall have helped to develop retail in this country in a different way.”
And it is still evolving. Last year, planners approved a £300m leisure hall expansion for Meadowhall that would increase the event space, offer more food outlets and outside space - but for now, those plans are on hold.
“In terms of rationale, it’s solid,” Mr Pearce said. “We’ve got the planning permission, we’ve got the funding, but what we also have looming is Brexit, and our investors have said, rightly so, that we haven’t got a clue what will happen after March and we have to pause for a minute. It’s the right thing to do, given the monumental economic change we face as a county - but that’s not to say we will deviate from this path.”
Meadowhall’s success is crucial to Sheffield City Council - after all, it contributes some £36m a year in business rates, and one job in every 100 in the Sheffield City Region is directly supported by the shopping centre.
The council’s cabinet member for business and investment, Coun Mazher Iqbal, said the centre is part of “the fabric of the city”.
“It’s a destination, bringing people into our beautiful city,” he said. “It’s a big employer, contributes millions in business rates, and for me, it compliments what we have in the city centre.
“When it came to the expansion plans, we worked very closely to ensure there would be no negative impact on what we’re doing in the centre, and that collaborative approach, of regular conversations, works well. The expansion will put it up there as one of the leading attractions not just in Yorkshire or England, but in Europe.”
With its own plans for the city centre, post the failure of development of Sheffield Retail Quarter, which officially came to end after the council severed ties with developer Hammersons in 2013, Coun Iqbal said it had been quick to realise that “behaviours and habits” had changed.
“Making the city centre successful isn’t just about shops,” he said. We have some 66,000 people working in the city centre, and 30,000 already living here. That footfall will give retailers confidence, but it’s also about having the right mix of everything, from good quality office blocks and housing, to restaurants and retail, and public realm.
“And by delivering the project ourselves, we won’t be hostage to fortune.”