Danny Batth and Patrick Roberts were not the only new arrivals on Wearside to be confirmed last week. The city of Sunderland has seen a flurry of new developments of late, with two of the most recent packages to be announced being right on the Stadium of Light’s doorstep.
It has been agreed that a former car salesroom opposite the East Stand will become a British Esports Association performance and education centre, whilst around the corner, work on a new music and food venue within the currently derelict stable yards on Easington Street is expected to start soon.
Both projects come under the wider plans for ‘Riverside Sunderland’ that aim to bring new housing, employment and leisure opportunities to the areas south of the stadium, and have added to the growing list of exciting regeneration schemes that are underway.
The plans also incorporate the new Housing Innovation and Construction Skills Academy due for Sheepfolds, and whilst not all of these facilities are immediately linked to SAFC, they all bring positive PR and help create a vibrancy around the place.
Supporters too will get a boost – traditional pubs like the Wheatsheaf and Colliery Tavern have always done a roaring trade on match days since the team moved to Monkwearmouth, but venues such as the nearby Vaux taproom and the upcoming stable makeover provide a different offering and may appeal more to other elements of the fanbase.
Having people wanting to stay out longer and spend their money in local businesses is a huge positive. The Stadium of Light already sits in a superb location for people travelling in or wanting to make a day of it, and key to unlocking its potential further is the new Wear footbridge that will improve connectivity between the two sides of the water and ease pressure on Wearmouth Bridge.
Having a joined-up approach means you cannot focus on the once-a-fortnight spikes that come when the Lads are playing at home though, and the current moves to improve the city all year round that go hand in hand with the bridge are impossible to ignore.
The crossing will help bring everything together, and joins to the previous Vaux site that for so long has been a cause of frustration. The history of it is well known to Sunderland residents, but the progress now being seen on the land is highly encouraging with A grade office space and the proposal of a purpose-built, state of the art eye infirmary likely to bring a bit more life into the heart of Sunderland. The new multi-story car park going on the plot will be another bonus on match days too, and with exciting additions round by Keel Square some parts of the centre are becoming unrecognisable.
On the square itself a new hotel is almost complete and that is good for a lot of reasons, not least the fact that an increased number of rooms within walking distance of the stadium makes fans from further afield more able to get across and support the side.
The neighbouring Fire Station auditorium is already generating a real buzz as well, and not only does that complement the venues that are already established in Sunderland it is helping forge a scene people want to be a part of.
Creative people are starting to see they can thrive here, and with the Culture House venture also on the horizon we are soon going to be at a stage where a family can easily split for a few hours, with some going to the game whilst some take in a show or visit an attraction, or even make it a doubleheader and throw in a trip to an eatery for good measure too. UK cities are moving away from retail, and these ventures will see us getting with the times.
If nothing else, local contractors could be quids in with the amount of work being put out. Sunderland’s central train station is another location in line for an overhaul and once again the benefits for us Black Cats are obvious. Now that the strategic transport corridor (the new road that links the Port of Sunderland, the enterprise zones around the Nissan plant and several points in between) is complete and with a better rail provision coming up, greater infrastructure means fewer transport headaches – and could even see one or two more people ‘staying ‘til the end’ of home games.
I make no bones about how proud I am of where I am from, or that I love Sunderland AFC. I should admit too that I work from Sunderland City Council, and therefore some people reading this may think this is just a fluff piece trying to appease my gaffers. I do not work directly in any of the areas that oversee strategy or planning, however, and rather than be judged as being biased I hope readers appreciate that I am speaking objectively as a local that wants to see my hometown thrive but also appreciates the constraints and barriers in place. Twee as it may sound, I decided to work for the local authority as I want to do my bit, but with the best will in the world things cannot happen overnight.
The negativity and one-eyed nature of a small minority of the populace means that whenever a development is mooted there will always be twisting and ill-informed comment to be seen on places like the comments section of the Sunderland Echo website. Just like anything involving the football club perhaps, the misgivings of those without any grasp of what a council’s remit is or what rules they are governed by can be frustrating, and it amazes me how many self-appointed architects, engineers and project managers we have knocking around that feel qualified enough to pass judgement.
That said, I am not oblivious to real issues that face residents, and nor do I believe these steps are all down to the council.
Private businesses and organisations seem to be investing their time and money into Sunderland more than ever. Some of them are local, such as the Pop Recs lads and lasses, and some of them are huge national and multinational corporations. Some of them are even fabulously wealthy individuals from successful European dynasties. They all have a vision and are all carrying out ambitious but thoroughly considered and achievable plans. Whilst I may like to grumble about the odd dissenting voice, the overall reaction to the latest set of announcements has been overwhelmingly positive and we can all enjoy the ride being mapped out for us.
Sunderland has some fantastic existing features and plenty of further potential. The stunning coastline and ever-improving area around it has long been seen as ‘the jewel in the crown’, but other parts of the town and its neighbours within the city limits are catching up.
In Washington the International Advanced Manufacturing Park will help keep the region at the forefront of industry, whilst hundreds of new homes are being constructed – particularly in parts of Houghton le Spring and Hetton le Hole.
Better paid jobs and a rapidly improving housing stock will keep talented people in the city and attract others to join them, and if some of that hard-earned cash ends up in Sunderland AFC’s coffers as a result then happy days.
Ignore the rhetoric about future investment in the region that some people have chosen to swallow in order to ease their conscience; we are already seeing Sunderland move forward, despite being failed by some of those at a national level, and outdated notions are being replaced as a result. Not every Sunderland fan has an affinity with the area I know, but a successful city and a successful football club can be good for the image and prosperity of one another, particularly when trying to attract players that not only have to think about their own career but the prospects of their loved ones. Batth and Roberts are unlikely to be the last new faces at Sunderland, and there is plenty to come off the pitch too.