At first glance, the building where Sunderland’s bid for UK City of Culture 2021 is based doesn’t seem very befitting. Rather nondescript from the outside and bordering the once-grand derelict Joplings department store, it doesn’t appear to be the best surroundings from which to stake Sunderland’s claim to be a cultural hub.
However, the building could almost be a metaphor for Sunderland itself – while from the outside it may not look much, in truth, it is a real hidden gem. Scratch the surface and a grand history and proud heritage soon becomes obvious.
Step through the door, and 4 St Thomas Street is a truly splendid and hugely impressive Edwardian building, with an equally significant history. Once the headquarters of the River Wear Commissioners – who founded the Port of Sunderland in 1717 and enabled the creation of one of the most famous shipbuilding destinations in the world – it becomes obvious why this has been chosen as the bid’s HQ.
Rebecca Ball, bid director for Sunderland’s campaign, proudly shows off the building, and particularly its stunning boardroom, which bears the names of all 12 Chairmen of the Commissioners. Having lived in the North East for five years since moving here from London, it’s
clear she loves the region, and is a passionate advocate of Sunderland.
“I think Sunderland has such a fascinating history, going back to Bede and how this was a centre for learning, to the city’s huge industrial achievements and shipbuilding and the things we invented; we have a great story,” she says, her ‘Sunderland City of Culture’ bid badge taking pride of place on her lapel.
“But our bid to be UK City of Culture is about the future of the city, and how we can build on the success of our past to take our opportunities for the future. We know this is not a city without its challenges, and perhaps some of our competitors may be further in their journeys than we are.
“But this is not a beauty parade – it’s about who can take the opportunities that come as a result of being UK City of Culture to create long and lasting positive change.”
Sunderland is one of 11 cities set to submit their bids to win the UK City of Culture 2021, with a decision being made by this time next year. To say the stakes are high is an understatement – predictions are that Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, will see £184 million pumped into the local economy, alongside the creation of 1200 jobs and a new era of growth for Humberside, through securing the highly sought-after status.
Sunderland articulates five areas in which it would benefit from winning: raising its profile as a cultural hub; raising the potential and aspirations of young people; connecting and unifying the city; improving health through participation in arts; and boosting job prospects and creation.
While not regarded by many as a frontrunner at this stage – Coventry and Paisley are said to be the favourites – Rebecca is adamant that Sunderland has at least as good a chance as any of its competitors. And while that may be an easy thing to say, there is a strong case to back it up.
The bid has won the backing from across the whole city and indeed the wider North East, with Sunderland City Council, Sunderland University and the MAC Trust (Sunderland’s dedicated music, arts and culture body) working in close collaboration with the city’s business community and residents to ensure a collective passion and joint approach. The growing success of existing assets such as the Empire Theatre, Sunderland University and the National Glass Centre, combined with future projects including the Tall Ships 2018 and redevelopment of the Vaux site are also persuasive arguments.
Rebecca, whose background includes being a director of the Arts Council and of The Cultural Spring, a project to encourage more participation in the arts in Sunderland and South Tyneside, says, with her characteristic passion for the cause: “One of the things that first struck me when I moved up here was how people support each other and work together to make things happen, and that is absolutely the case with our bid. Business people, artists, academics and the council are all working together to create this vision for our city, and that’s very special.
“Everyone is committed to galvanising Sunderland and to coming together to make a difference to our future. This bid is the beginning of a journey for us, whether we are successful in our bid for UK City of Culture or not, although clearly winning the bid would help enormously.
“We want to be seen by people who live here, and by the wider UK too, as a place where you can be proud to live and work, where you can have a strong cultural life, and where our young people can achieve their full potential and develop their careers.
“Putting the bid together is a very positive process for the city, and through sharing and articulating ideas and aspirations, we can then act on them. This is an exciting time for the city and we would urge everyone to get involved – everyone has a voice and a role in this. The opportunities are for everyone.”