Plan to make Sutton Coldfield ‘destination’ center revealed by new city manager

Exciting plans to reinvigorate Birmingham’s second largest shopping area have been unveiled by the newly appointed downtown manager. Michelle Baker, who hails from Rugeley, took the reins as the new manager of the Sutton Coldfield Business Improvement District (IDB) this week and has already said she wants to raise the city’s profile and make it a big draw for visitors.

The BID area in Sutton extends from the cinema (out of action) to downtown to Sutton Coldfield College. Companies pay a fee with the money used to boost the city. The companies voted last year for another five-year term, taking it until 2027.

Sutton, like other city centers, has seen a decline in its retail offering in recent years, particularly with big names like Marks and Spencer, Next and Argos all abandoning the city’s flagship Gracechurch mall — all before the coronavirus pandemic.

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Covid has exacerbated these exits with the likes of Accessorize, Carphone Warehouse, Laura Ashley and TUI all leaving in the first year since the virus. And places like GAME moving into the parent company, the House of Fraser store, with Wilko’s also announcing the imminent closure of its Red Rose Center store.

But the city center also received new arrivals. Stores like Fabrik, Toys 4 You and the British Shoe Company have already opened. As well as the Taco Bell fast food outlet and Teasan bubble tea bar. Further up Birmingham Road, Rhodehouse has opened, the arrival of German Doner Kebab is imminent and new food spots include Mutiny, Tapiri, Veeru’s and Otto Pizza.

But Michelle wants to reinvigorate life in Sutton more, and first plans to find out what IDB members want, why stores aren’t opening in Sutton, what the mix is, and what her organization can do about it.

New Sutton Coldfield BID (Business Improvement District) Manager, Michelle Baker (right) pictured with BID President and Gracechurch Center Manager Angela Henderson
New Sutton Coldfield BID (Business Improvement District) Manager, Michelle Baker (right) pictured with BID President and Gracechurch Center Manager Angela Henderson

‘I want to increase the focus on the city and make it high profile’

She helped create and manage 20 BIDs across the country, including Lichfield’s and set up the UK’s largest BID in North Nottinghamshire. And another in Staines-upon-Thames, where she traveled for six years. After securing a new term two weeks ago, Michelle decided it was time to work closer to home.

She said: “I have been working on BIDS across the UK. I knew there was a BID in Sutton and I thought it would be nice if everyone knew there was a BID in Sutton and cranked it up a little!

“I want to increase the focus of the city and the IDB, and make both of them have a really high profile. In my first week, I’m working on what the IDB actually does and then creating a plan for this year.

‘I need to find out why companies aren’t coming to Sutton’

Michelle added, “I will conduct a survey of the members. Based on this, we will produce a public report detailing the mix of retail and service offerings and empty units.

“As an IDB, we need to know what the city center is made up of and what the priorities are. We want to get a better business mix on the IDB board.

“I also need to find out why companies are not coming to Sutton and what the IDB needs to do to change that. For people visiting Staines, we have launched a shuttle service, a free car park and a free city bus. We paid subsidized parking for workers who had to pay £12 a day to park to reduce it to £34.”

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‘Sutton Coldfield will become a destination hub’

When asked about offering free parking at Tamworth’s Ventura Park, Michelle said: “The difference between us and Tamworth is that Sutton Coldfield will become a destination. It will have that vibe you don’t get in a retail park, with frequent free community events that people wouldn’t expect from Sutton Coldfield.”

The 41-year-old has been in the BID industry for 14 years and for the past two years has also been operations and regeneration manager in Hednesford, breathing new life into the historic market town.

And she plans to do the same in Sutton. She said: “I created the brand Visit Hednesford on behalf of the city council, which had 10,000 Facebook followers in a year. I created a farmers and crafts market with 70 stalls that attracted 10,000 visitors every month. Then we put in the step numbers and the empty stores were full. ”

New Sutton Coldfield brand to be created

One of their first steps will be to change the name of the IDB saying that people didn’t know what they were. She wants to be known as Visit Royal Sutton Coldfield – straight to the point.

Discussing the government’s plans to force homeowners to rent out empty units, Michelle said she was aware of the problem in Sutton and contacted Angela Henderson, manager of Gracechurch Centre, and Jan Rowley, director of the Royal Town Council’s regeneration program.

She said they wanted to be ‘ahead of this’, with plans to use empty stores for things like yoga – more leisure uses. She said: “I know Sutton’s perception is that stores are closing and there’s nothing to come to town. I am aware that there is a strategy with the Gracechurch Center and the city council [with the regeneration partnership’s masterplan].

“I want to create a strategy of love where you live so that people are proud of their downtown again. The challenge is your perception. People seeing it isn’t as bad as it sounds. The IDB will work with the mall to see what can be done.”

Street signs along the parade
Street signs along the parade

Top-notch events will be held to attract winners

The mother of one said she plans to move to the city, with her grandparents hailing from Four Oaks and her daughter planning to go to Sutton Coldfield College next year. Michelle is planning to host a series of events in the city to increase visitor numbers, as free events attract visitors and have the knock-on effect of boosting business.

She said: “Elsewhere I organized a car show and open-air cinema. I linked the latter with the Wimbledon finals where people can watch tennis and then a movie. I also held food festivals, antiques appreciation events, like the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, but without the cameras. And an outdoor food court for people to use the city center as a meeting place.

“I really want some high-profile events. The IDB will bring people in, and when they are here, they will come and spend and have a look.”

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Michelle wants the IDB to be honest, to explain why stores are closing, if they do. She said: “I want the IDB to be very direct with people. I want to do an article about the future of Sutton Coldfield, explain it in a transformational stage right now.”

And the work starts now. There are plans to cover downtown Sutton in banners for the queen’s platinum jubilee – particularly as it has ‘royal’ status, Michelle said. “I want to make Sutton exciting, fun and different.

“I am absolutely thrilled to be joining the Sutton BID and will work diligently to increase commerce and traffic from local businesses and raise the profile of downtown Sutton Coldfield.”

IDB President and Manager at Gracechurch Shopping Centre, Angela Henderson, said: “We are delighted to welcome Michelle to the IDB and believe Sutton will benefit from the experience and enthusiasm she brings to the role. This is an exciting time to be at Sutton Coldfield, with the Town Masterplan being developed and ambitious plans for the city centre.

“The IDB will play a central role in the revitalization of Sutton and we are delighted to have Michelle on board. We would like to thank Interim IDB Manager Keith Ward for his work over the past few months and wish him the best of luck in future endeavors.”

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