WEARSIDE’S economy was given a welcome boost today with the news that a major shopping centre is to undergo a multimillion-pound revamp.
The ambitious £8million project to re-develop The Galleries, in Washington, will involve a “complete redesign” of its main covered mall and create up to 50 jobs.
It is hoped the move will help bolster the beleaguered retail sector in the area, where an estimated one in five city centre shops now stands empty.
Figures from the Local Data Company show its “vacancy rate” rose to 21.5 per cent last year, a hike of four per cent from 2009.
But bosses at The Galleries, which attracts between 13 and 14 million visitors a year, said business is booming, with the refurbishment expected to bring in more trade.
Centre manager Jim Hughes said: “It is a huge project. The Galleries is at the heart of the town centre and the community.
“It’s important that it is as seen as such. We already attract a huge number of visitors and we intend to build on that.”
A giant glazed atrium roof, flooding Wessington Square with natural light, will be installed, as well as modern ground-floor tiling.
Two new café areas will also be built, with the work completed before the busy Christmas shopping season.
The new positions are expected to be retail-based.
Mr Hughes said: “These major works will dramatically enhance the centre, which will be lighter and brighter than ever before.
“We would like to thank all our customers and retailers for their patience and continued loyalty during the temporary disruption to the centre due to these improvement works.
“The refurbishment will be completed by the end of the year and the result will be worth the wait.”
The first phase of the two-year-project, which began in 2009, was completed last August.
It involved the installation of double-height, glass-fronted entrances, balustrades and contemporary ceramic floor tiling.
New ceiling finishes to the malls at both levels, with improved energy-efficient and natural lighting, are expected to further enhance the 550,000 sq ft site.
Other recent improvements at the centre, which opened in 1974 and has more than 200 outlets, include Sainsbury’s recently completed multi-million pound refurbishment of its existing store last November and a new bus station.
There has also been a 100,000 sq ft extension to the retail park, attracting high-street businesses including Halfords, Home Bargains, Pets At Home, Brantano, Peacocks, Outfit, New Look, Next, Clarks and Peacocks.
Frankie and Benny’s and KFC restaurants have moved on to the estate, while Marks and Spencer recently opened its new 10,000 square foot Simply Food store.
Scott Linard, associate director of asset management at PRUPIM, which has invested in the centre since 1977 and is funding the revamp, said: “This is great news for the shoppers, retailers and for our investors, who want to see the centre continue to thrive for years to come.”
The announcement also came as welcome news to business leaders.
Councillor Bryan Charlton, Porfolio Holder for Prosperous City at Sunderland City Council, said: “The developers’ £8million pounds investment is testament to their continued confidence in our city’s economic future.
“The continued refurbishment of the centre can only add to the shopping, retail and leisure attractions we can provide to residents and visitors alike.”
Shoppers also gave the refurbishment the thumbs up.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” said mum Janet Gill, 43, from Washington. “I’ve been coming to the centre for a while and it seems to be changing all the time. It’s really impressive.”
Engineer Paul Letts, 29, from Sunderland, said: “I’ve got relatives who live in the area so I tend to pop in when I’m visiting.
“It’s got a good selection of shops already, but it’s always nice to something like this creating jobs.”