The MetroCentre celebrates its 25th anniversary today. Joe Willis looks back at the history of the shopping and leisure centre, which remains Europe’s largest.

FOR a quarter of a century, the Metro- Centre has stood beside the A1, a mecca for the region’s shoppers. In that time, about half a billion people have walked through its doors to shop, meet, eat and enjoy themselves.

But the miles of glass shop fronts and ringing tills are a far cry from the site’s former use as a power station ash dump.

The catalyst that helped turn what was described locally as a “great big clarty field” into Europe’s biggest shopping centre came in 1981 when the area was designated as one of the UK’s first enterprise zones.

This meant that as well as 100 per cent capital allowance on building work, the site was subject to few planning restrictions and a ratefree status for ten years.

It was John Hall, a miner’s son from Ashington, and his property development company, Cameron Hall, who recognised the site’s potential, with 1.5 million people living less than a 30-minute drive away.

Sir John’s aim was to build a shopping and leisure centre that combined the best of North American innovation with centuries of European shopping tradition. But for the project to succeed, the developer needed support.

This initially came from Gateshead Metropolitan Council, which, in early 1984, hosted an exhibition at a local hotel to draw attention to the scheme.

To everyone’s surprise, 1,000 people attended, including senior executives from a host of leading retailers such as Marks and Spencer, the Burton Group, Boots, BHS and House of Fraser.

Buoyed by this enthusiasm, Gateshead Council and the Department of the Environment agreed to pay £1.75m towards the cost of the access roads linking the site to the A1.

After the decision by M&S to take a large store on the site, which would be their first outof- town venture, the concept changed from a large collection of retail units to a huge shopping centre.

In February 1985, the first girders were slotted into place and House of Fraser, a ten-screen multi-cinema complex and other major retailers, including the Burton Group, Northern Goldsmiths and BHS, joined.

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The MetroCentre In Figures

A working population of 7,000
Nearly 23 million annual visitors
More than 340 shops
£250,000 spent on Christmas decorations every year
3.5 miles of shop fronts, roads, bus and railway stations

In October the same year, the Church Commissioners announced they were providing the long-term development capital for the scheme.

The first malls were officially opened on October 14, 1986, when the MetroCentre became the first of its kind in the UK.

Later that year, Mr Hall was named North- East Businessman of the Year. He eventually sold his stake in the MetroCentre for £70m, and, in 1991, was knighted for helping to regenerate the area.

The impact of the MetroCentre was not always positive. In neighbouring Derwentside, shops suffered a 70 per cent loss of trade, although most people agreed that the MetroCentre had put Gateshead on the international map, created thousands of jobs and helped to stimulate the wider regeneration of Tyneside.

In 1987, the blue and yellow malls and a cinema opened, joining the red and green malls.

The following year, Metroland was launched.

Capital Shopping Centres bought 90 per cent of the MetroCentre from the Church Commissioners in 1995 for £364m.

Improvements and redevelopments have continued every year with a new red mall, multi-storey car park, and a new dining and leisure area, which replaced Metroland and the bowling alley.

Over the years, the MetroCentre has pioneered a number of techniques which are now used by other shopping centres throughout Britain and mainland Europe. These include the H design, which maximises space and allows for more large anchor stores.

There is a well-planned marketing strategy that not only targets people living less than an hour’s drive away, but also people living elsewhere in the UK and further afield in Europe and Scandinavia.

The objective, once customers have walked through the door, is to provide people with more than just a shopping experience. The buzz word is “shoppertainment” – a wide range of events are held in the malls, ranging from fashion shows and musical productions to pantomimes and motor shows.

THE celebrations to mark the centre’s 25th anniversary will culminate with fireworks tonight. General manager Tim Lamb says the task is now to ensure the next 25 years also goes with a bang.

Plans for the future include the MetroOasis, which is under construction. This will include a drive-through coffee shop and other restaurants, on the site of the former filling station and will help to link the retail park with the main centre.

Centre bosses will also try to satisfy retailers’ desire to create bigger stores, while also ensuring they continue to cater for the small independent stores, which Mr Lamb says differentiates the MetroCentre from other shopping centres.

“We’re not going to sit back and say ‘right we’ve done it’. We’re going to continue working towards the regeneration and rebranding of the MetroCentre for the future – this is just the start of the next 25 years,” adds Mr Lamb.