SUNDERLAND needs to shout about the good things it has going on, says the man charged with getting Wearside to Shop Local.
Ken Dunbar is the newly-appointed chief executive of Sunderland’s Business Improvement District (BID).
City centre businesses voted in favour of the BID proposal, which will use a 1.5 per cent levy on business rates to pay for a range of improvement initiatives, in July.
The scheme, which officially begins in April, will see at least £3.4million invested in the city centre over the next five years, as well as acting as a key mechanism to attract other investment.
Ken took up his post in the New Year and has been busy putting in place the formal arrangements that will allow the Bid to operate when the money starts coming in.
“It has been six or seven weeks, getting to know people and getting some of the instruments and processes sorted out,” he said.
“That was always going to be the main job for the first couple of months.”
Ken is looking forward to getting to grips with the challenges facing the city centre but knows the BID team will have to learn to walk before they can run.
“The expectation levels are rising and that is something we need to manage because there are a limited number of things we can do in the short term,” he said.
The BID may not even have started yet but Ken is already thinking months ahead and is formulating his plans for the city centre’s busiest period.
One of the things we need to be focussed on is making sure Christmas looks as spectacular as we can make it, and that really means the planning for it has to start now,” he said.
Outdoor markets have been a popular feature in previous years and are something Ken is keen to repeat –but only if they complement what is already on offer.
“We are focusing on markets and trying to get them to align with the retail offer in the right way,” he said.
“It is about doing something that will get people to come into the city.”
The overall aim is to create a distinctive brand for the city centre.
With an early career in the leisure and culture sector, Ken is keen to make the most of factors such as Sunderland’s thriving music scene as a way to attract people into the city centre.
But that means the city blowing its own trumpet metaphorically, as well as literally, in a way it has failed to do previously.
“There is some really good stuff going on but letting people know, that seems to be the biggest problem, getting the information out there,” he said.
“It is about getting a brand together that allows us to contact people properly and push the information out, rather than just assuming people are getting it – that’s the real challenge that we have.”
The team should not be afraid to look to other successful BIDS for ideas, but had to be careful that initiatives were suited to Sunderland.
“For example, Newcastle’s Restaurant Week has been a success,” said Ken.
“I don’t think we should just be trying to replicate that but hopefully it can be an inspiration – it demonstrates what can be successful if you get the offer right.”
The BID is independent of the city council but Ken was previously chief executive of Castle Morpeth Borough Council, where he oversaw the £40million improvement programme in Morpeth Town Centre, and knows the potential for public and private sector to co-operate.
“The council has shown the right level of support and I hope we can go further,” he said.
“I am keen to integrate in a number of areas,”
Transforming the city centre is something that will not happen overnight and Ken is aware the BID can’t work miracles.
Everyone will have to play their part in making the scheme a success: “One of the things I want to promote is a sense of pride of place,” he said.
“It is all about people taking a degree of responsibility themselves to keep the city looking right.”
Times have been tough for everyone in the last few years, but Sunderland has suffered more than most, with so many of the ambitious plans to regenerate the city centre falling victim to harsh economic reality.
But with signs of recovery becoming more apparent, Ken believes the time is ripe for the launch of the Sunderland BID.
He can sense a new optimism on the High Street, while the physical changes underway, with the demolition of Crowtree Leisure Centre and creation of the new public square that will open up access to the former Vaux brewery site, are also encouraging people to take a positive view.
“There is a lot of potential here in Sunderland and a lot of excitement among the traders,” he said.
“They are able to sense a change in the economy.
“We need to harness that and ensure everyone is moving in the right direction.”