Emotional day for former Vaux boss as work starts on old brewery site
Today is an emotional one for Frank Nicholson.
The former Vaux managing director led the management buy-out team that made an unsuccessful bid to save the brewery.
He spent the last day standing at the gate, shaking every worker by the hand and saying a final goodbye.
It was the start of more than 17 years of delay and haggling over the future of the site, which finally comes to an end today.
Frank is delighted to see work finally start but admits to being a touch sceptical.
“I am pleased, but I will believe it when I see it,” he said.
“With it being 17 and a half years since the brewery closed, it is almost impossible to imagine what any development on that site is going to look like.
“As I have always said, that is all I ever desired to see - new life on what has been, for so long, a dead site.”
The failure of the management buy-out plan marked the end of more than 150 years’ brewing heritage on Wearside and the loss of more than 600 jobs.
In some ways, Vaux had become a victim of its own success – or at least, that of its Swallow Hotels division.
As the hotel business grew, Vaux went from being a brewing business that ran hotels to a hotel chain that happened to brew beer.
Vaux became the Swallow Group, and new board members decided the Swallow Group no longer needed a brewery.
The team, led by managing director Frank, submitted a management buy-out bid, but the board preferred to strip down the brewery and flog off the prime city centre site, as well as the brewery’s pubs.
The loss of Vaux coincided with the closure of Cole’s Cranes, and regeneration agency Sunderland arc was set up to help the city recover from the double blow.
But crucially, by the time the arc was up and running, it was too late to gets its hands on the Vaux site.
Whitbread - which had snapped up the Swallow Group - had sold the land to Tesco.
The supermarket giant wanted to develop the site for retail and business use but the arc said the site – one of the main gateways into the city centre – was too important for that and developed its own ambitious mixed-use scheme.
The stand-off lasted a decade and it was not until February 2011 that the city council announced it had bought the land from Tesco for an undisclosed sum, following an agreement with regional development agency One North East and the Homes and Community Agency.
Plans to redevelop the surrounding area - creating the new Keel Square and rerouting St Mary’s Way and Livingstone Road- were announced in June 2012,and Siglion, a partnership between Carillion and the city council, was established in 2014.
The council’s then-chief executive Dave Smith outlined the vision for Vaux at a meeting of the North East Chamber of Commerce’s Sunderland committee in January 2015.
He said: “Our ambition around the Vaux site is to create a Doxford Park, but in the middle of the city centre.”
Plans for the site were finally approved earlier this year.