Regeneration of Sunderland's historic hub makes city a haven for social enterprises

The rebirth of Sunderland’s historic heart has seen a new wave of small business owners and entrepreneurs flock to the city.

Dozens of social enterprise organisations have set up in Sunderland since it was granted ‘Social Enterprise City’ status by Social Enterprise UK in 2014, spurred on by a substantial investment programme to restore some of its most cherished properties.

Almost a dozen historic buildings in the old commercial centre of the city around West Sunniside and High Street have been brought back to life in recent years.

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The redevelopment of 172-175 High St West is one example. The properties date back to the late 18th Century when Old Sunderland, which had begun in the East End, started to expand westwards.

Following a £1million restoration, the former Binns store has been transformed into a music venue, record store, cafe, gallery and kitchen where young people can gain catering skills after being taken over by Pop Recs.

Director Dan Shannon said: “It’s a huge privilege to be operating out of these buildings. which have such incredible cultural and historical relevance in the city.

"We’re helping to create renewed activity and footfall at this end of town which we hope will attract more like-minded enterprises to set up shop here.”

As a social enterprise, Pop Recs operates as a business but ploughs much of its profits back into helping address community or environmental challenges, rather than creating dividends for its owners.

Vincent Todd and Mark Burns-Cassell outside the Norfolk Hotel

Its success has since led to two more social enterprises joining it at High St West, with Sunshine Co-operative CIC, a one-stop-shop for local and sustainable food and drink produce, and Global Teacher, a non-profit business looking to help millions of children in some of the world’s most marginalised communities access education, also moving in. supported by the Sunderland City Council-backed Historic High Streets Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) project, which has also provided funding to the Elephant Tea Rooms and Mackie’s Corner.

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Another project hoping to stimulate social economic growth in the city is the redevelopment of The Norfolk Hotel, which played a pivotal role in the formation of Sunderland AFC and is being supported by the city council.

Plans approved just last month will see the site transformed into an arts and community hub led by social entrepreneurs Mark Burns-Cassell and Vincent Todd who – over the past five years – have together become one of the biggest creative workspace providers in the city, restoring 10 unique and historic properties which now house scores of social enterprises, including the former Hills Bookshop in Waterloo Place, an old townhouse at 35 West Sunniside and 29 and 31 Norfolk Street.

“We can see all around us the positive changes in our city, driven by ambition, dynamism, vision and a belief by social entrepreneurs and local-led enterprises and

The Sunshine Co-operative has been supported by the BIC team
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businesses and we see real potential for business growth and the growth of the local economy in Sunderland,” said Mark.

“There is a really supportive feel in the city right now, with many people all coming together on the same wavelength to achieve a shared vision for Sunderland’s future.

"It is a really exciting time for the city and we are delighted to be so involved and playing our part.”

With the renovation of Sunderland’s historic heart having already seen dozens of social enterprises investing in the city centre over recent years, and with many more expected to follow suit, the city council is working to put the support in place to help them thrive.

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Mark Burns-Cassell and Vincent Todd in the Norfolk Hotel

This includes the Innovate for Good programme, funded by the Council and delivered by the North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC).

Since its launch in 2019, it has helped hundreds of budding social entrepreneurs set up in the city through its expert support and guidance.

Kevin Marquis is the BIC’s social enterprise expert and has spent more than 36 years supporting social entrepreneurs across the North East.

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Pop Recs, Sunshine-Co-operative and Global Teacher have all been helped by the initiative and Kevin is excited to see how the continued investment into supporting the city’s social entrepreneurs will further bolster its social economy.

“Over the past three decades I’ve worked with hundreds of social entrepreneurs who have gone on to create real environmental and social change, both at home and across the globe, so I know just how important it is to develop an ecosystem which eliminates the barriers to growth for social entrepreneurs,” he said.

Sunshine Co-operative in High Street West
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“This means providing the space, as well as the support required to help bring their ideas to life, which is why initiatives like the HAZ project are so pivotal to growing our social economy.

"You’ve just got to look at the success of the restoration of High Street West to see the impact it can have, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds as more developments come to fruition.”

City council leader Coun Cllr Graeme Miller said: “The people of Sunderland are renowned for being caring, friendly folk, which is why we have naturally developed such a strong social economy and why projects such as HAZ and Innovate for Good are so important to ensuring we are doing everything we can to nurture social entrepreneurs.

“And, by putting measures in place to restore some of our most cherished buildings and ensuring they continue to serve our community, we’re not only preserving our history, but we’re also ensuring they continue to shape our future as Sunderland continues to evolve and become a city of the 21 st century.”

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For more information on Sunderland as a city to do business, visit:

Kevin Marquis (front centre) and his team
POP Recs has moved to High Street West from its old home near Park Lane bus station