The much-loved Hills, in Waterloo Place, Sunderland city centre, sold its last novel 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 until social entrepreneurs Mark Burns-Cassell and Vincent Todd took it over in late 2020.
The pair and their arts CICs have already had much success with previous ventures, including artist studios and spaces in Norfolk Street, taking over the former Creative Cohesion in Nile Street, upper floors at The Place in Sunniside and a former brewery in back Norfolk Street – now Hills has become their flagship business.
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They have invested £160,000 in completely re-configuring the 6,000sq ft site to create individual studios and work spaces, resulting in a new creative hub for the city 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 says it was important for them to honour the site’s history and they sought the permission of the family who owned Hills to use their name in the new name, Hills Arts Centre.
“Hills is such an iconic shop in the hearts and minds of Wearside, people grew up with it,” explained Mark. “So we always wanted to name the arts centre after it. It’s a living legacy: it’s still an educational environment, but we’ve brought it into 2022.”
Much work has been done to create individual artist and business spaces within the large site, and the units are already full, bar one, with the artists and businesses bringing the building back to life, whether it’s Grinder brewing up coffees downstairs or artists crafting new works upstairs.
Mark said: “It’s been a real privilege to create a space for so many varied practitioners.”
Muse, a beauty studio specialising in brows, lashes, aesthetics and nails, is one of the businesses on the ground floor alongside the Grinder Central coffee shop, which is fully accessible.
The new space gave city businesswoman Helen McLean the chance to build upon her former Take A Brow salon in Frederick Street to create a bigger beauty business.
As well as her clients, it’s also welcoming those of the on site aesthetic nurse, with a space available for a nail technician.
"My former salon was quite isolated, but this spot in the centre of the city, where so much investment is taking place, is great. It has such a good vibe,” said Helen.
"Having Grinder here was also a big pull for me as we have a similar style and client base. People can come and have their brows and lashes done, then pop for a coffee, so it works really well.
"I knew this site as Hills and it’s great to see it become a creative hub for independents. With Sunderland losing so many of the big chains, it’s independents that are the way forward for the city centre. And that will only get better with all the new developments taking place, such as the train station and new housing.”
Grinder Central has opened as a sister site to the original Grinder in Durham Road and has given owners Michael Curtis and Riki Tsang the chance to expand their offering.
The first Grinder will remain in operation, but, at triple the size, Grinder Central has space for sit-in as well as its own kitchen facilities, meaning they can prepare more in-house dishes and increase the menu to include sandwiches, with some unusual options such as Nutella and chorizo and Nutella s’mores toasted brioche.
Michael says it’s fantastic to be part of a wave of investment in the city centre.
"I don’t think there has ever been as many changes in Sunderland as there are at the minute,” he said. “The high street hasn’t been in its best form in the past, but all the new developments are unlocking its potential,” he said.
Paula Woodhouse has one of the studios upstairs where she creates fused glass works for her business Class Glass by Wor Lass.
"It’s such a relaxing environment and it's great to be working around other creatives,” she said. “It’s inspiring to see how they work.”
Back downstairs, the front space at the arts centre houses breakout areas for displays as well as community arts activities.
As well as creating physical spaces, Mark and Vincent also help their studio holders with funding applications so they can earn a living wage from their art. Across their group of cultural organisations that’s resulted in £2million worth of funding in creative businesses housed across their city centre venues.
Mark said: “Not only is it creating employment opportunities in the city, it’s giving artists the freedom to be creative, giving the public the chance to engage with arts, whilst also bringing more people into the city centre. It’s making the local community a more resilient and engaging space.”
:: Hills Arts Centre will be hosting an open evening from 6.30pm to 9pm on Thursday, March 31 where people will be able to have a tour of the building, meet the studio holders, have a go at some crafts and sample some of their products. It’s open to all and free to attend.