Lind Colling: Sun setting on Sunniside?

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HIGH noon in Sunniside Gardens. Where’s the tumbleweed, where’s Gary Cooper, where’s everybody?

It’s desolate on this Indian summer day with the chill wind of despair blowing across the cobbles. It should be sunny side up in Sunniside Gardens, but it’s as dead as a doornail.

The ‘For Sale’ sign is up on Eau Zone bar and restaurant, Signatures Cafe is shut, only opening on an evening now, business is so bad, and those who are open wonder for how much longer.

“We are just forgotten and if things don’t pick up, it’s pretty bleak,” says artist Ursula Apreda, who a year after moving in now knows why her neighbours welcomed her with “good luck.”

Since Joplings shut, Sunniside, such a gem set in limbo land, is even more out on a limb.

It’s a cut through for people from Hendon, somewhere for drunks to lay their heads, skateboarders, BMX riders and the destitute from the Norfolk Hotel to haunt. Parking at 70p a half hour is another killer.

“It’s like Armageddon, desolate, like something out of a Western movie,” says Ursula who feels so desperate some days she feels like going outside and shouting “Hello, we’re here.”

The other day she was staggered when a couple came into her gallery. They were getting out of the way of people rowing. She says: “That’s how busy we get.”

It says everything that in the depths of snow last winter, one trader couldn’t even sell sledges. After three days he just pulled down the shutters watched by Grant Bulmer, 28, owner of Signatures, who says that shop has now been sold for a lock-up.

He too feels Sunniside has been forgotten by the council after it was so beautifully re-designed. But for what? Grant says: “They started a job but it hasn’t worked out. They have upped sticks and left and are focussing on other areas of the town.

“This year has been worse than ever. We just do five nights a week and Sunday lunches. I am totally disgusted. A couple asked me ‘Where is Sunniside Village?’ I said ‘You are standing in the middle of it.’ They were amazed after reading about it and had got a taxi down while visiting the town. After six o’clock it’s like a ghost town, no one will walk past the undesirables, the alcoholics, re-offenders.”

Paul Mason, boss of EMC2 Business Solutions, says the regeneration programme stopped half way: “What’s happening now is it’s on a hill starting to roll back on itself. What it needs is activity. The whole idea was to create a little kind of Bohemian cafe culture. But they aren’t going to open if no one is coming here. We need to attract people down to Sunniside with markets, festivals, music events, theatres, whatever it takes.”

Talking of markets the council has one lined up for next Saturday, October 8. Will anybody go? It seems there’s a reluctance to venture outside of The Bridges.

Ursula and others despair that markets are held in Park Lane because the footfall is there.

Their argument is if the council put a regular market on it would create footfall. You can’t create footfall if nothing is happening.

A market only happened last Christmas because Ursula and Grant took the initiative to stage one for the first time, disgusted at the council’s lack of inititive. Then they came on board just in time, cobbling together something that hadn’t been on the cards. Why wasn’t it?

Ursula says: “I couldn’t believe there was nothing for here with the setting we have. I started talking to other businesses and other people round here and they said, ‘It’s just typical. We don’t get anything.’ I said what I wanted to do and they said ‘You are wasting your time,’ which made me more determined to make it happen.”

The Christmas market was a success followed by another in the summer. But that’s not enough to regularly bring people to the Gardens.

An apathy pervades. If only regular markets and main events for families were happening, who knows if new life could be breathed into the Gardens? It’s soul destroying for those battling to stay afloat in what the council calls “an oasis.” The traders have their own words for it.

Barber, Mick McDonough, 55, of Johns, who with his partners moved there six years ago from St Thomas Street, believing it was going to be THE place to be, now wonders how long they will survive: “I fear for the future. It’s not even a park, not even enterprising businesses. It’s nothing. It’s a dead end,” says Mick.

He, like some other traders knew nothing of the market. It was news to him. He can’t understand why after so much was spent on Sunniside, the council has failed to deliver a non-stop programme of events.

Ursula says: “I don’t think they knew what the end product was going to be in trying to bring new businesses in.”

Partners in business Lesley Thirlwell, 31, and Sarah Payne, 27, opened Stardust Hair & Beauty in March after the previous owners gave up with their cafe. Others have also gone – a gym, estate agents, an office.

The hairdressers would like to see regular markets here, rather than in Park Lane.

Elsa and Stephen Joyce are struggling with their Lunch & Go cafe. “The last three years have been horrendous,” says Stephen. Some days they shut shop early and are relieved that they are paying their way. But for how much longer? Stephen says: “You have to be optimistic and hope tomorrow will be better than today.”

Unless a new strategy is found for Sunniside, I can see all these good folk shutting up shop.They are fighting a losing battle. They know it and so does the city council who have so hopelessly lost sight of what Sunniside could be.

Hope springs eternal and that’s all these traders have left to live on, waiting for the council big shots to back them all guns blazing. High hopes at high noon ...