Potential, people and passion are the watchwords for the new woman at the head of the company charted with promoting Sunderland city centre.
Sharon Appleby has taken over as head of operations for the city’s Business Improvement District (Bid) and has big plans.
Sharon is familiar with the city, its challenges and its opportunities.
“I have worked in Sunderland since 2001, with Sunderland Housing Group and then Gentoo and have seen so may changes within the city,” she said.
“I had a huge amount of challenge at Gentoo but have always been allowed to develop new things and push the boundaries with lots of different things.
“It was time for me to leave Gentoo, definitely. From my point of view. I had done what I could do there.”
Sharon was already a member of the Bid board and found herself excited by the potential of the city centre.
“Because I was on the board of the Bid, I had started to get an understanding of what the challenges were but also what the potential is.
“I think when you look around you can’t fail to notice how much potential there is in Sunderland and also when you look at the amount of stuff that is already nailed on in terms of investment and development.
“I wanted to be part of that as it starts.”
But she needs the traders on-board to make the most of opportunities.
“I think the bit about the job that really, really excites me is about working with people, working with the businesses primarily, because they are the people who are the levy payers, they are the stakeholders,” she said.
“The consumer is absolutely vital but working with the businesses is the key thing for me.
“I love working with people, looking at issues and working together to try to solve that problem. This job gives limitless opportunities to do that, especially when you look at the numbers.”
The Bid has a small, dedicated team, at its Software Centre offices, but Sharon is aware of its limitations and the need to attract support.
“We cannot do this with the budget and the numbers of people, without working with other people,” she said.
“That’s a key thing for me, that we have to be able to do that and we have to be able to do it well. And we have to then prove that the collaboration has been successful.
“It is about asking for help, saying to people, ‘We need your help to deliver this,’ then they say ‘Tell us what it is you want,’ as opposed to not asking them for anything, then they almost feel excluded.
“My style is very co-operative and is much more about what we can do together.”
‘I can understand the scepticism’
Sharon is hugely optimistic about the future of Sunderland city centre.
But she is realistic about the fact that people have been promised things in the past which have not materialised.
“You can understand some of the scepticism because certain things have taken longer than anybody would have hoped,” she said.
“But actually I come in every day now past the Vaux site and it makes me smile, because I think every single day it looks different . If people can just hold their nerve, there are a lot of things that are a little but under the radar at the moment. Once we can start to talk about that, I think confidence will build.”
Long-term sustainability is the key: “We’ve still got to focus on events because they are really important, but they can’t be the only thing,” said Sharon. “They are a one-off hit, people come in for the event, then they leave. We need to build a much more sustainable offer, so they come regardless of whether there’s an event on because they value what is here.
“I do think we have challenge in that there aren’t enough people using the city centre. We people who work in the city centre not using the city centre as often as they could or might - and they certainly don’t use it on an early evening.
“The other thing is people who live or work on the outskirts go elsewhere, they don’t necessarily come to the city centre because we’ve not done a great job of promoting what is actually here.
“There are some fantastic things here and there is a lot of it, but what we haven’t done is pull it all together and consistently say: “This is what is here, come and enjoy it, come and experience it.
“So how do we deal with that, how we do we work up an economic offer as things start to develop, as there are more workers in Sunderland, as Vaux comes on and some of the other developments start to really take shape?”
Spreading the word
Sunderland Bid is about more than attracting people into the city centre – it also needs to spread the word about what there is to keep them there.
Sharon said the team was looking at ways to encourage people to move around more.
“When we first set the Bid up, it was kind of four key areas, so there was Sunniside, there was Park Lane, there was a retail quarter and then there was the Mac quarter,” she said.
“Actually, that’s still quite a sensible way to look at it but what we don’t do is direct you from Park Lane to Sunniside or from Keel Square to Park Lane.
“Signage is something we’re working with the council on because we all recognise the signage is out of date and that its not pointing to the new things and the right things any more,” she said.
“There’s quite a big amount of work going on around that, whether it is going to be physical, digital, there’s a whole range of things going on. It won’t be very long before that is in-situ.
“We’re talking specifically about Sunday at the moment. There are all kinds of things going on on a Sunday in Sunderland, just not all in one place.”
This year’s Christmas campaign will also see events spread out more than in previous years.
“One of the big things for us around Christmas is about the whole cross-promotion of everything that is going on,” said Sharon.
“So Christmas is a five-week programme, there are things happening all the time in different locations this year, which we’ve not really done before.
“We’ve kept it quite tight previously, so in response to some of the issues the traders bring up, we’re working really closely with the guys at Park Lane, the traders and the bars and restaurants.
“We’re still having Keel Square, but one of the big things this year is cross-promotion and we need to encourage other people to help us with that.
“We started Christmas planning in January and we got lots of the businesses in the room and said: “Who wants to stay involved, who wants to be involved in shaping this?’ and actually the majority of those who started are still there and are wanting to bring in different things themselves and work with us, which is fantastic for me.
“I just think the way the Bid will move forward successfully is through partnership and collaboration.”
One project Sharon Appleby is particularly passionate about is one of Sunderland’s traditional retail centres.
“Jacky White’s market is a live project,” she said.
“We’ve got some funding identified by the council to do some big development work with there, physical infrastructure, capital investment work so we have been involved, we have helped to appoint the architect, we are looking at working with a retail specialist to help traders to re-imagine how people use the market and potentially how they promote themselves. I have been really pleased with how perceptive they have been and how much they want to get involved and they want to help to shape their own future. It has got some real heritage – there are people in there who have had stalls for 40-odd years, who are really passionate about it but they have come to the point where they have got fantastic local customers but actually they are not getting the new blood in, the new customers.
“You can get everything in Jacky White’s market, anything, everything. We talking about how do you capture that, modernise it and repackage it.”
Vision still valid
The original motivation for setting up Sunderland Bid is as valid today as it was when the idea was first floated, believes Sharon.
But she accepts it has not always delivered on its promise.
“What I do think we have to do is concentrate on delivering some of the things we had in the business plan initially, that we absolutely said we would do, that potentially we have not delivered so far,” she said. The priorities are still 100 per cent valid, which is great - how we deliver them might slightly change.
“For me, if you look at the engagement with the traders, the levy-payers and non-levy payers, I think some of that needs to be tightened up and improved.”
One of the areas Sharon has identified is the Bid’s branding and visibility. The ‘Experience it here’ slogan is being retained, but the logo has been redesigned, with a bolder red colour: “What we’re NOT doing is move away from ’Experience it here,’ said Sharon.
“We’re just going to try to explain it slightly differently and bring it to life in a different way, so it’s about what you can do when you’re here and we’ll be picking out lots of good images.
“We had quite a confused brand, it blended in with an awful lot of other brands out there and it was very difficult to use from the marketeers’ point of view.
“So what we said was, can we just strip it right back, can we simplify the whole thing so that it is easy to use, easy to understand and very recognisable, very joined up, very visible?
“I do think people forget what the Bid is involved in and how much stuff the Bid actually does because it is not visible enough.
“We’ve evolved it. We’re not changing what we believe or what we’re about, but actually how we present it is much more simple.
“We looked at the colours, looked at red and just thought ‘why would we not?’ - just plain red and white.”
The Echo revealed this week that the Bid has created a ‘pop-up city centre’ - a shipping container which will open up to highlight a vast range of things the city centre has to offer.
It will make its debut at the airshow this weekend, before taking up residence in the city centre and occasionally being taken on the road.
The next stage of the Bid
Sunderland Bid was initially set up for five years after city centre traders backed the plan in a vote. Work has already begun behind the scenes in preparation for the next vote, in a couple of years’ time.
“We’ve just finished the third year,” said Sharon.
“We have not started going out to traders yet but internally we have started to think about what that potentially could look like and I am working really closely with the board and the guys on the team on that. We are good at really tactical stuff and we communicate a lot, but we also need to communicate in a way that people want to be communicated with and I think there’s a bit of work to be done on that.
“We do some research every year and last year sixty per cent of the businesses surveyed said they would re-vote for the Bid.
“We are just about to go out with that again. I will be really interested in those results and that will really help when we make the plan with the board as well.
“We’ve jus appointed a new chair, Alan Patchett, we’ve got some new board members, so there’s a whole range of different things that will help us to build up that credibility in the background.”
Whether or not businesses pay the Bid levy is down to their rateable value and Sharon is keen to see more brought into the fold.
“My ambition would be to see about half-and-half in the city centre,” she said.
“At the money it’s 30/70. When you set the Bid up, you can choose what that threshold is. Ours is £15,000, so we have 300 or so smaller businesses. I would love for more of those small businesses become really successful so they move up into that band.”