It’s been a real labour of love for social entrepreneurs Mark Burns-Cassell and Vincent Todd who took over the empty building in late 2020 with the vision of transforming it into a new arts centre in the heart of Sunderland.
In that time they’ve had to deal with the difficulties of a pandemic, spiralling costs of £160,000 and Storm Arwen, which wreaked havoc on the roof, but finally Hills Arts Centre has officially opened in Waterloo Place.
Mayor of Sunderland, Cllr Harry Truman, cut the ribbon at the new site, which is now home to a broad range of businesses and creatives.
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Mark said it was great to see the building come to life with a new offering for the city.
"It was a gamble taking on a site as big and high profile as this in the middle of the city centre, but we feel like it’s come together perfectly,” said Mark.
The pair have completely re-configured the 6,000sq ft site to create individual studios and work spaces, resulting in a new creative hub which houses 17 businesses and arts practitioners, including a coffee shop, beauty studio, tattooist, glass artist, photographer, jewellery maker, candle maker, milliner and many more.
Mark added: "When we first started showing studio holders and businesses around it was a building site, but they had faith in our vision and to see it become a reality is amazing.
"This building means so much to the people of Wearside, so I think they’re delighted to see it being used. We always wanted to incorporate and honour Hills in the name and were given kind permission to do so by the family.”
He added: “The building has been given a new lease of life, along with many other redevelopments taking place in Sunderland at the minute, such as Riverside. We are so proud to be a part of the redevelopment of the city at such an exciting time.”
The much-loved Hills sold its last book in 2006 after serving countless customers since opening at its original site in Fawcett Street in 1852.
In more recent years, the Waterloo Place unit had a number of guises, including as Reds hairdressers, but had been empty for some time before Mark and Vince took it on.
Like many in the city, Mayor Truman had been a regular to Hills to pick up stationary and books when he was a schoolboy.
He said: “Over the years Sunderland’s culture quarter has moved around the city, but has settled now at Keel Square. I always say city centres need a glue and and the new Hills Arts Centre does that for this part of the city centre, it will bring more people to this area.
"It’s taken a while, but we have a lot to shout about in this city now and what they’ve done here is absolutely fantastic. As a kid who got through their 11+ in Southwick, I would come here for my pens and pencils. Back then, it was round the corner from another great shop, Joseph’s Toy Store.
"I can only applaud what they’ve done to bring it back to life. We’ve started the regeneration of the city, but what we need is entrepreneurs like this to put the cream on.”