Leah’s Yard: Looking back, moving forward
The recent loss of city centre retail giant John Lewis, a building remembered fondly as the iconic Coles Brothers department store, plus the resulting fallout from Covid-19 and continued boom in online retail has brought forward a debate on how Sheffield can reinvent its high street to offer something exciting and unique.
Step forward Leah’s Yard, a former 19th Century little mesters works and one of Sheffield’s most important heritage buildings, now preparing for an exciting new future that will both honour and celebrate its rich industrial heritage as part of the Heart of the City regeneration programme. Following an extensive bidding process, Sheffield City Council has selected an impressive bid from Sheffield Science Park Company (SSPCo), who plans to transform the building into a new destination for local independent businesses, socialising and enterprising, combining a full mixed experience for visitors and users of the building. Plans also include creative workshops as well as creative spaces for Sheffield’s thriving independent business scene.
Tom Wolfenden, CEO of SSPCo, which manages the Cooper Buildings on Arundel Street, and James O’Hara of the Rockingham Group (Public, Picture House Social, Gatsby, Ambulo), have together realised a longstanding ambition to combine their extensive complementary experience on the new project.
Once fully refurbished, the revitalised Leah’s Yard will feature a collection of high-quality local traders within ground floor studios, offering everything from furniture and clothes to artisan foods and ales, with unique spaces on upper floors to accommodate the best of Sheffield’s small businesses. In addition to the creative spaces and shopfronts, the venue will host regular public-facing events, makers markets and themed evenings appealing to a diverse range of audiences.
We caught up with Tom and James last month to discuss the motivations behind this ambitious renovation and what the project aims to bring to central Sheffield.
I want to start off at the beginning by asking you how this collaboration came about. I know it started with a bidding process and eventually SSPCo was selected, but what set the gears in motion?
J: So, the genesis of it was quite a while ago. Tom and I met on a train maybe four or five years ago. We just hit it off on the train really. Tom was working at Showroom at the time and also managing Sheffield Technology Parks. I was doing Tramlines, I had the Gatsby, and maybe Picture House had just started up too.
T: I think you were just opening it, because we were talking about how to make somewhere… I don’t like using the word ‘cool’, but the Showroom bar used to be really vibrant and that was because of the tenant mix and the offer there. And that’s how we got talking, wasn’t it?
J: And then Tom approached me last autumn, which was good timing because all my bars were shut and I had nothing else to do. He got in touch about Leah’s Yard and it just immediately sounded really exciting. And I think Tom and I had an awareness that our skillsets are different but complementary. Obviously, my background is kind of F&B – more customer-facing business and shop fronts – and Tom with his work at Tech Parks had incubated businesses over the years and… [to Tom] How many businesses have you got now?
T: We have 34 businesses, but I think we’ve got about 15 start-up businesses as well, and then quite a few co-workers that drop in. But yeah, it’s quite important to say that we couldn’t have done this individually; it was very much our complementary experiences that makes it work. I couldn’t have done what Jim’s been doing with the Yard, but I know that I can do what I do upstairs, so it just fitted together really nicely.
A not-for-profit angle makes the project stand out even more. Could you explain that side of things?
T: I think the interesting part of it is that we’re both very commercially aware and can run businesses, but the Science Park Company that runs the Technology Parks is a non-profit, limited by guarantee company. So, all the profit we make, we reinvest in our programmes, facilities or services or anything like that. We have a board of trustee directors effectively. Leah’s [Yard] is really tricky because it doesn’t stack up in a commercial property world, it’s a very expensive renovation, it’s Grade II* listed, and I spoke to a few commercial operators and they just weren’t interested. It wasn’t big enough for them, and the returns just weren’t there, or it was too much of a liability, too much of a headache. That’s really what makes it quite interesting because our bid – and I won’t get into the financials of it – but it’s favourable towards the commercials as well, because we’re not taking profit out of it – we’re in partnership with the council really.
J: Yeah, I think that’s key. Although me and Tom both have a commercial background, this project is very much about giving a platform to new businesses. No one needs to see my mug again, doing another thing that’s purely about me. There’s already too much of that.
T: We’ve always said at the Technology Parks that no one really knows what it is. It’s a deliberately an anonymous brand, if you like. The interesting stuff isn’t really what we do, it’s what our tenants do, and that’s exactly how it’s going be with Leah’s.
It’s nice to see something motivated out of passion over profit these days.
T: Yeah, we’re doing this out of passion more than anything; we want it to be a really good place to for city to socialise and work in. It’s going to be an incredible place to work – we’ve already had so many enquiries.
Can you talk us through the initial vision for Leah’s Yard and how it can move forward while retaining its heritage?
J: I think ‘experiential’ is a key word – we’d already imagined what I would be like to walk through this beautiful heritage building, and that kind of articulated our bid. It’s not just going to be about slotting in businesses randomly, but more working out what they will bring to the overall feel of that square. It’s an amazing rabbit warren of buildings in there. Sheffield is a city built on makers, creators and innovators; this building was a home to steelworkers and metal workers, so we want to modernise that idea by placing complementary businesses in there to create a community.
T: It was first built to host ‘little mesters’ – self-employed tradespeople who might rent a bench or bit of space to work in. It was basically multi-tenant occupancy, right? We want to bring that sense of its heritage back into the building. We’re also not just going to plant people in there and hope they’ll be okay. As we do at the Technology Parks, there’ll be business advisors and entrepreneurs on-site to help out businesses with everything from tax questions and sales strategies to building an online Ecommerce platform.
Do you already have a specific idea as to sort of businesses you’d like to get in there?
T: We’re looking for really interesting independent businesses that have got scope and ambition to grow. We’re giving people a shop window, an opportunity to have a retail space that is not too overwhelming. Some of the smaller spaces are really affordable, and that’s very important. For example, Sheffield still makes the finest cutlery, but we don’t really know where they are, as they’re out in workshops across the city. We want to bring in the high-quality, high-value traders and help people get to that level as well.
J: That mentorship stuff is huge. It’s certainly something that I wish I’d have had when I started out. When you do start your own business, you can spend years just sort of bumbling through and second-guessing yourself.
What do you hope will be the wider impact on the city centre as a whole from bringing together this community of start-ups and independents into the heart of the city?
J: It’s good that you brought up the heart of the city, because there’s obviously the elephant in the room, which is the John Lewis closure, and I imagine it was going to crop up in your questions. Shall we just get to it now?
Go right ahead.
J: That model of department store is obviously troubled, isn’t it? And UK High Streets and city centres have been in flux for quite a few years now. I think covid basically sped up what was already happening. What Leah’s Yard aims to do – and it’s the same with what’s happening on Cambridge Street with the Cambridge Street Collective, the food hall and restaurant/bar venue who will be our neighbours – is help to reshape the city centre. I think Sheffield has a good opportunity to build itself a really vibrant city centre, led forward by independent businesses.
T: I think there used to be five department stores in Sheffield centre, which has kind of whittled down to just Atkinson’s really. We hope that, since they’re a local independent brand that has been here forever, they can be the main department store for Sheffield. There’s an opportunity now for smaller concessions in the city centre, and with Leah’s they’ll literally have a shop window and it will hopefully become an important part of our streetscape. It’s important to acknowledge that the loss of John Lewis – especially the jobs aspect – is heartbreaking, but we’ve got to dust ourselves down now and ask what’s next as a city.
There was a lot of emotional attachment with the John Lewis building. How do you set about replacing that with a project like Leah’s Yard?
J: I’m thinking that with John Lewis, a lot of the sadness is linked to memory, isn’t it? People have made memories there. A lot of the reaction was ‘I used to go in with my mum’, or ‘I used to go in with my grandmother’. My mum worked in the café at John Lewis, so I have a connection to that building too. But I think our job now is to create places that give people new memories, and I think that the commercial side of city centres has lost its way a little bit with that. It became more about commerce and transactional things and just going into a shop to buy something. Whereas all of my memories of Sheffield from when I were younger are like the smell of Castle Market or how imposing Redgates was when you wanted to get some toys – all these kind of magical things. I don’t remember what I bought, but I remember the memories. I think we have a good opportunity with Leah’s Yard, as do Cambridge Street Collective, to create a place where new memories can emerge.
T: I think from a heritage perspective, there’s a lot of historic interest and local heritage society interest in the building – it’s Grade II* listed for a reason, you know? Without sounding too aloof, we are going to be custodians of it. It’s not going to be ours to do what we want, so we’re going to try and be respectful towards its past.
Following the pandemic and a lot of retail moving online, there’s been a lot of conversation as to what city centres should look like these days – so it’s perfect timing, in a way.
T: Yeah, and thank god we didn’t get a big Arndale or Bullring-style shopping centre 10 years ago, as was proposed by Hammerson, or that would’ve been empty and probably need knocking down. The council have been really good and really forward-thinking on it. They’re the lead developer through all of this, alongside Queensbury, so it’s not like it’s a private company running it. They’re building it but handing it over to local people and independents businesses they know will do a good job.
How do you think Leah’s Yard will combat the increasing popularity of online retail?
J: I think most independent businesses now are way ahead of it, if you think about how many in Sheffield have had to pivot over the last year. A good example is Bench. I used to employ Jack and Ronnie at Public, who then went and opened their own place. But within three weeks of opening Bench, they had to close due to the lockdown. They pivoted into doing national deliveries within a week, set up an online shop, and now have thankfully reopened. Most independent businesses are well aware of the importance of online retail. What Leah’s Yard offers, though, is a shop window and a base in the centre. Of course, there are also products and experiences that you just can’t get online, which somewhere like Leah’s Yard can facilitate. For example, if I want a record, I go to Joe at Bear Tree because I want to talk to him and then I often come out and he’s recommended two more. That doesn’t happen online. If I go to see Jules at Hideout to buy some beers, she recommends three more that I’ve not tried before.
It’s the importance of that personal touch, isn’t it?
J: Yeah, a personal touch from the people behind these businesses. That’s still got value.
T: A lot of people start online and grow into a retail store. We want to make sure that the people who are currently trading on Etsy or similar platforms have the opportunity to come in. So, we’re talking about maybe having a shared store where there are several people’s different wares in the retail unit and they share it, maybe on a timeshare or something like that, or we could look at offering a Leah’s Yard app where we can push things online.
You mentioned that you want to try to keep the focus away from you as individuals and firmly on the project and businesses, but personally what’s motivated you to get stuck into this?
J: Mine’s gonna sound so hippy-ish, but I’ll say it. I feel like I want to give something back to the city. I’ve got my businesses here, I’ve spent a decade building up the bars, and when the opportunity came to work with Tom to do this, it felt like an opportunity to use what I learned to make the city that I love a better place. That’s my ambition for it, basically.
T: As we touched on earlier, in my work it’s not about what we do, it’s what our clients do. Our mission at Sheffield Technology Park is all about making Sheffield the best place to start and grow a digital business or locate a digital business. Leah’s is exactly the same. We can send our current team onto Leah’s without having to build a whole new management team and we can do it very efficiently. And obviously with Jim’s skillset and his kind of passion, we just have an instinct it will be a good thing. It’s about helping to improve Sheffield. Not that it’s bad at the moment, just developing.
J: In an ideal world, once we’re near to opening, you’ll never hear from us again. That means we’ve done our jobs properly.
T: Yeah, hopefully you’ll be speaking to all the traders and businesses doing cool stuff inside Leah’s Yard. The most interesting part of Leah’s will be on that launch day and you see who’s there, how that community forges together. The hard work towards that starts now.
Preliminary structural and roof work on the Grade II* Listed building has been underway since September and will bring the derelict building back into a safe condition, with a view to opening the space in time for Christmas 2022. For more information on Sheffield Council’s Heart of the City development programme, head to heartofsheffield.co.uk.