SIGNS of a upturn in the fortunes of Sheffield city centre emerged this week as legal agreements were signed for the long-awaited construction of a new markets hall off The Moor and developers said they were preparing to refurbish the whole of Castle House, the Co-op building off Angel Street.
At the same time, there was evidence that Sheffield is bucking the national trend with a slight increase in the number of city centre visitors over the past year.
Meanwhile, staff at the John Lewis store in Barkers Pool - the focalpoint of another delayed project, the Sevenstone retail quarter - were given their own piece of good news. They will receive a bonus of 14% of their salary, equivalent to more than seven weeks’ pay, despite a fall in national profits.
While any start on the construction of Sevenstone remains many months away, the council was cheered by the signing of legal deals that pave the way for work to begin on the Moor markets in the summer.
Agreements with its commercial partner, Scottish Widows Investment Partnership Property Trust, which has been granted a 250-year lease of much of The Moor, also covers eight new shops next to the new markets and the revamping of the upper section of the precinct.
It represents one of the last steps in a regeneration project that has been crawling along for years, with increasing frustration over the replacement of the Castlegate markets.
The property company will provide a site for the council to build the indoor market opposite Atkinsons department store and to develop the eight shops. Work is due for completion by the end of next year.
Trade at the rundown Castle Market has suffered in recent years to such an extent that the council has given rent discounts to stallholders, who are generally supportive of the move to The Moor, albeit with a wary eye on the new rents that will be charged.
Council cabinet finance member Bryan Lodge said: “The traders and the Sheffield public have seen many disappointments in plans for providing a new market but we are now really in sight of the building work starting.”
Ranald Phillips, a director of Ashcroft, SWIPPT’s asset and development managers, said: “We recognise that there have been a few false dawns in previous years but SWIPPT is committed to a rolling programme of regeneration.”
Despite the optimism, evidence of the economic downturn pervades the city centre, especially with the many empty shops at its fringes, around Castlegate and The Moor, and on land earmarked for Sevenstone.
One landmark building, Castle House, is due to get a new lease of life later this year.
Developers CTP, who have bought the distinctive black granite-fronted premises in Angel Street, are preparing to refurbish the whole building and to add two more shops in time for Christmas.
They are aiming to let the top two floors for offices.
The latest council ‘footfall’ figures for the city centre indicate an increase of 0.5% year on year compared with a drop of 1.1% in other towns and cities.
Council leader Julie Dore said: “This is one of a number of recent encouraging signs that Sheffield is faring better than average on a national scale.
“We know that times have been tough, and we will never be complacent about the challenges we still face taking the city forward, but there is much to be optimistic about here.”
She said events such as the Tramlines music festival and the Food Festival were helping to boost numbers of visitors.
The figures follow data from commercial property agents Knight Frank indicating that Sheffield is one of one of only four UK cities outside London and the South East to see take-up of office space in 2011 ahead of the ten-year average.