'Inclusive, cosmopolitan and international': How Sheffield's New Era development could herald a future of greater trade with China

Jerry Cheung and Martin McKervey at the New Era site. Picture: Andrew Roe
Jerry Cheung and Martin McKervey at the New Era site. Picture: Andrew Roe

“This has not been done before in the UK,” says Jerry Cheung, managing director of the New Era development, a huge scheme of flats for students, shops and restaurants off Bramall Lane in a high-profile spot near the St Mary’s Gate roundabout.

Backed entirely with Chinese investment, it is worth more than £65 million, will support 400 jobs and includes a crucial element – the China-UK Business Incubator, a service that will strengthen ties between the two nations and encourage enterprise at a time when new trading partners are being sought beyond Europe.

Jerry Cheung and Martin McKervey with a model of the New Era scheme. Picture: Andrew Roe

Jerry Cheung and Martin McKervey with a model of the New Era scheme. Picture: Andrew Roe

A collaboration between Jerry’s firm, the city council, both Sheffield universities and the Chamber of Commerce, the incubator is a not-for-profit social enterprise that will sit next to New Era’s 21-storey Jade Tower, a block of apartments that looms over the KH Oriental Supermarket, an older Cheung venture that is already up and running in its new home.

“The objective is about creating wealth and jobs for Sheffield and the region,” says Jerry. “We found 65 per cent of Sheffield businesses are doing business with China. Some of them struggle.”

Martin McKervey, a retired lawyer, is chair of the Sheffield Property Association which holds New Era in high regard. “I think Sheffield is, for the first time in a generation, feeling confident in itself,” he says. “The impact this will have in terms of building that confidence is something I think you shouldn’t underestimate. Jerry and the New Era investors could have gone to London.”

The Star is focusing on the mission of the SPA – which aims to be the ‘collective voice of property in Sheffield’ and was the first organisation of its kind outside the capital – through a series of features looking at major schemes championed by its 46 members, a diverse group including developers, planning consultants, solicitors and commercial agents.

The CUBI will launch in a month’s time, occupying a floor of a building offering a conference venue and offices to let. Chaired by former MP and ex-sports minister Richard Caborn, it will provide a route to contacts and advice, acting as a ‘facilitator’. The honorary president is Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Sheffield University’s departing vice chancellor who also has strong links with the Far East and speaks fluent Mandarin.

“We’re there to co-ordinate and maximise the opportunities,” says Jerry, who had his original vision of a modern Chinatown in Sheffield well over a decade ago, persevering with the concept through the recession. He came to the city from Hong Kong in 1975, worked for British Steel as an engineer, then made money setting up restaurants and building up a rental portfolio.

The first phase of New Era is virtually finished, the tower now covered in distinctive teal cladding. Students – a mix of Chinese undergraduates and those from Britain and other countries – moved into studio flats last year, paying between £145 and £175 a week. Occupiers – among them Costa Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts – are poised to sign deals for the commercial units; three large spaces and some smaller kiosks were in the first release. The kiosks, Jerry says, are available for £100 a week and will most likely be turned into food stalls. “Not just Chinese,” he adds.

Next door, construction on the second phase, which will bring the remaining flats along with offices and more commercial units, has begun with an overall completion date of May 2020. It includes the important New Era Square, a large public plaza previously likened to a mini Times Square by Jerry. New banking facilities and funding of £27m has just been agreed with Barclays, securing phase two which will take the number of student beds to 656.

The site, comprising five blocks, will connect several areas – The Moor, London Road, Ecclesall Road – and the supermarket has made an impact too. “Since we moved here our clientele has gone from 20 per cent non-Chinese to 40 per cent. They really like it.”

Bringing people of different ethnicities together was, for Jerry, always a prime factor. “The whole thing is about being inclusive, cosmopolitan and international.”

There is an ambition to help affluent overseas students stay in Sheffield to use their skills once they have ended their studies. “By culture they are very entrepreneurial,” he says.

China has rules around transferring money internationally, but Jerry insists certain sectors are safe. “If you want to buy a football club, no you can’t. If you want to buy a film company – forget it. If you want to buy infrastructure, you don’t have to ask, go ahead. It’s not a complete shutdown, they’re being more careful, which we understand.”

Backers of New Era are ‘pleased with the whole thing’, he says. “Sheffield is a lovely place and they appreciate that.”

And Martin has words of praise for Jerry. “The journey this guy has embarked upon is testament to what you can achieve when you go for the stars.”