Sunderland leisure complex to be revived in proposed £2m plans

Multi-million pound proposals to revive a struggling leisure complex on Wearside are being explored by council bosses, following the closure of the city’s cinema. Sunderland City Council’s cabinet, at a meeting this month, agreed to a range of new projects to be considered in the council’s future capital programme, with nearly £60 million of investment projects proposed.

Although further decision-making is needed before the schemes can become a reality, several are linked to Sunderland city centre buildings recently bought up by the city council, including the former Joplings department store. Another city centre investment proposal includes £2 million for Sunniside Leisure, a large leisure complex housing a casino, bowling, restaurant units and a now vacant multiplex cinema.

The complex has housed several restaurants over the years, including Frankie and Benny’s, buffet restaurants and other themed restaurants, however at the time of writing Nando’s is the only restaurant remaining. Rio Steakhouse was once tipped to move into the former Frankie and Benny’s unit, however, this was recently ruled out by hospitality bosses with suggestions the brand would open at another site in Sunderland.

Back in July, 2023, Empire Cinemas also announced several cinema closures with ‘immediate effect’ after going into administration – a decision which left Sunderland without a cinema. Sunderland City Council had already acquired the Sunniside Leisure building before the national announcement from Empire Cinemas.

New capital investment proposed for the 2024/25 financial year is aimed at bringing the Sunniside Leisure building back into use, with council documents stating the council is in discussion with “a number of potential tenants”. A council cabinet report states: “Funding is sought for the refurbishment and fit-out of the cinema and the three adjoining vacant retail units in order to attract new tenants to support the regeneration of the area.

“Discussions are progressing with a number of potential tenants for these units however it is likely that some form of landlord fit-out contribution will be required”. In addition, the report noted works were planned to “renovate and refurbish the Sunniside multi-storey car park to provide a more welcoming arrival point”.

When approached for comment, Sunderland City Council did not confirm whether commercial discussions were taking place with another cinema operator. There were also no time scales indicated on any potential new use, or uses, for vacant units.

Councillor Kevin Johnston, the council’s cabinet member for Dynamic City, said: “We’re beginning to look towards the next budget and financial year that starts in April 2024. We have our ongoing City Plan for a more dynamic, healthy, smart and vibrant city.

“This has always included seeing where and how we work with partners in both the public and private sectors on moving Sunderland forward. As part of this, we have always had an ongoing policy of both acquiring and disposing of land and property where it aids and assists development, investment, job creation and new economic opportunities.

“This included, in early 2023, acquiring the Sunniside Leisure complex and its retail units. As we look to the next budget and as landlord of these properties, a refurbishment and re-fit is being considered.

“While the cabinet report states that we have had discussions with potential tenants, it would be remiss and overhasty of me or others to go any further in public with commenting on these matters as they are commercially sensitive.”

Capital proposals for the Sunniside Leisure building are subject to further decision-making as part of Sunderland City Council’s budget-setting process. The council’s final capital and revenue budget proposals are expected to be finalised in early-2024.

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