Sunderland "could certainly deliver a successful City of Culture programme" if it wins the coveted prize.
That was the verdict of TV producer and writer Phil Redmond, who headed a judging panel that visited Wearside today to inspect its culture credentials.
The panel, which will recommend one of five shortlisted cities to be named City of Culture in 2021, met more than 100 local people representing the city’s businesses, arts organisations, community bodies, the city council, the University of Sunderland and Sunderland College.
Mr Redmond, who was deputy chair and creative director of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, said: "There are two underlying principals to the whole process. It’s up to each city to define its own culture and the second is what are they going to use that culture for and what changes will it bring about.
"By having a City of Culture here the media spotlight and national arts institutions will be focused on that city for one year.
"We know the project is transformational and it came out of Liverpool because I saw exactly what it can achieve. I put the idea to Government – why don’t we do this every four years because it was so transformational in Liverpool?
"Even we scousers had forgotten who we were after 30-40 years of being battered in the national media about political dysfunctionalism and economic decline, it put a kind of collective sense of despondency around the city. What culture can actually do is shake everyone and say ‘hang on a minute, let’s remember how we got here, who we were, who we are and where we can go in the future’ - I’ve seen that impact in Liverpool, so it seemed an obvious thing to try and do that every four years in the UK.
"Sunderland could certainly deliver a successful City of Culture programme – that’s why it’s on the shortlist with all of the other cities, they’re all capable of being City of Culture 2021.”
Rebecca Ball, Project Director of Sunderland’s 2021 bid said: "Today was months in the planning and I’m delighted with the way it has gone – the citywide, passionate support for our bid was clear throughout the judges’ visit.
"I’m so grateful for everyone involved in welcoming the judges to Sunderland – they did our city proud today."
The judges started their day at National Glass Centre where Bid Steering Group Chair Graeme Thompson, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Sunderland gave them a warm welcome to the city and to a meeting of the city’s strategic leaders.
"Bidding for UK City of Culture has ignited real passion and energy here. We were delighted to make the shortlist and we know we will deliver something extraordinary if we win. We hope to make you confident of that today,” he told the judges.
"The process of bidding to be UK City of Culture has been extraordinary powerful because it had brought people together to imagine future possibilities. And as those conversations have progressed we have become convinced that what Sunderland needs more than anything is to install a collective belief that our best days are still to come," he added.
Deputy Leader of Sunderland Council Coun Harry Trueman and council Chief Executive Irene Lucas told the judges of the huge benefits and impact a successful bid would have for Sunderland.
After a visit to the city’s coastline, the judges were then taken to Keel Square and the emerging cultural quarter. They met many of the city’s cultural leaders at the newly renovated Fire Station before moving on to Mowbray Park and Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.
The judges then visited the East End of the city before calling in for a quick stop at Back on the Map in Hendon. From there, the four judges - Chair of Galway 2023 European City of Culture Dr Aideen McGinley OBE; design journalist and entrepreneur Marcus Fairs and economic regeneration tourism expert Suzanne Bond and Mr Redmond – were taken on a bus tour of the west side of the city and the coalfield villages.
Their tour ended at Arts Centre Washington and a meeting with some of the city’s leading business leaders.
Paul Callaghan, Chair of the Leighton Group and the Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust, talked of the dramatic changes he has seen in his lifetime, since being born in the city in the 1950s.
He described the problems and challenges the city faced in the wake of losing its heavy manufacturing base, and how arts and culture are playing a pivotal role in the city’s renaissance.
"Over the last half decade, the people of Sunderland have demonstrated a determination to change their city, a vision clearly articulated and emphatically backed by the city’s key organisations and individuals, with culture taking centre stage," he said.
Mr Redmond added: "The final decision will be taken by the independent advisory panel and we’ve told all of the cities that it’s a two-part exam. The paper one, the submission, is in and that’s marked and the answers can’t be changed and the second stage is the formal presentation in December. This visit is an informal part of the process for the judges to come and get a feel for the place and the people and see how the city is coming together."
The judges were seen on to their Virgin Train from Newcastle by members of the 2021 bid team. Newcastle Station Manager Louise Rutherford said: "Virgin Trains is proud to back Sunderland’s fantastic bid for City of Culture 2021. We’re fully behind the bid which is already helping to raise the profile of the whole North East region.”
The judges’ visit to Sunderland caused a storm on social media, with the hashtag #WelcometoSunderland trending in the UK top ten throughout the day.
Sunderland was the last shortlisted city visited by the judges. Other shortlisted cities Coventry, Paisley, Stoke-on- Trent and Swansea were visited last month.
The winner will be announced in Hull, current holder of the title City of Culture, in December.