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From a Debenhams to a creative hub: closed stores get new lease in community life

It was once the launchpad for a national department store chain, now the former Binns site in Sunderland’s High Street West will be fostering the musical and catering talents of young people.

Futureheads, Field Music, and Frankie & the Heart Strings, will kick off the first main gig at the former department store, which is being reincarnated as Pop Recs, a music and arts venue and community hub.

The Grade II-listed building opened as Binns haberdashery store in 1811, trading there for about 80 years. It later spent time as an ironmongers, and provided bedsits and a squat.

Now, after a £1m renovation which has taken three years to complete, the site houses a music venue, record shop, cafe, gallery and kitchen where young people can gain catering skills. It also accommodates a youth mental health charity and market where teenagers can sell products. A neighbouring store is set to house the first high-street outlet for Sunshine Co-operative, a local online grocer.

The project is one of dozens around the country where communities, local authorities, social entrepreneurs and charities, are raising funds to bring former department stores, left vacant by the collapse of chains such as BHS and Debenhams, back into use.

While Sunderland’s scheme is based around music, in Southend, Essex, the former Havens department store, an art deco masterpiece that resembles a mini version of London’s Selfridges, is now home to a thriving community centre focused on supporting older people.

In Great Yarmouth the abandoned Debenhams site has been transformed into the Primeyarc gallery under the auspices of a local charity, while in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, the former Elizabeth Packs department store, which closed five years ago, is now an arts space which has plans also for a cafe and permanent homefor the Shademakers carnival group.

Martin Hulse, trust manager of Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust, said the trust had worked in partnership with Sunderland city council, and the funders, the Architectural Heritage fund and Historic England, to revive the former Binns building. Pop Recs, a local social enterprise, came up with the creative ideas to bring the space alive.

“The social outcomes that Pop Recs can deliver really makes it special. I worked with them to create the vision. Without their dynamism I wouldn’t have been able to do my bit,” Hulse said. “The returns on social outcomes of community engagement, improving security of the area and bringing footfall and making it a nicer place to live, are really difficult things to monetise but that is what we are delivering – huge change for the area. You now see people on the streets at night.”

Matthew Mckeague, chief executive of the Architectural Heritage Fund, said that social enterprises, springing up around Britain, were often able to use their local knowledge and connections to find solutions for old buildings where the commercial world could not.

“They have become a bigger part of the economy, particularly in places suffering from economic deprivation,” said Mckeague. The heritage fund, a charity which promotes reuse of historic buildings, has £15m to invest in 100 similar projects around the UK, about eight of which have already begun.

Mckeague added: “In a lot of places the cost of doing up a building is more than the value of the building itself. No bank is going to put money behind that and the landlord will say it is not worth it. There has been a cycle of doing nothing. A not-for-profit can raise money through grants and different types of social investment that a private owner can’t do.”

Community projects, sometimes backed by crowdfunding or council cash, also have the advantage of being able to work quickly to bring spaces back to life, in a semi or undeveloped state, helping to keep people visiting town centres.

Related: New breed of local food halls in UK towns offer grub and a hub

There are questions about the long-term potential for such projects, particularly given the hefty costs of redeveloping a large department store buildings, which could be beset with structural problems or riddled with asbestos.

But Mark Robinson, chair of the High Streets Task Force, a government-backed body which aims to support the revival of town centres, said community projects were one of a range of tactics that would be needed to provide new anchors for high streets and town centres where departments stores were less likely to be a draw now.

“About 160 Debenhams stores have closed and there will probably be over 100 different solutions for those buildings. That takes us away from clone towns which we have fallen out of love with, putting back in place what communities want and need,” he said.