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From steelworks to shopping mecca: 25 years of Dudley's Merry Hill

Dudley | News | Published:

It stands as a silver beacon for out-of-town shopping destinations in the country – with 214 shops and 25 million shoppers a year.

Merry Hill shopping centre was completed 25 years ago – the £1 billion brainchild of millionaire developers, twin brothers Roy and Don Richardson.

Merry Hill, in Brierley Hill, has turned out to be a multi-million pound success after its creation nearly 25 years ago

Early 1980s: Government ministers create a series of Enterprise Zones offering incentives to business to take on industrial land for redevelopment

1981: Dudley Council approach businessmen brother Roy and Don Richardson about the possibility of bidding to take over the 300 acre site in Brierley Hill which is part of the new zone.

1982: Well known manufacturing plant Round Oak Steelworks closes down after 125 years in December with the loss of 1,300 jobs directly and many hundreds more indirectly.

1982: The Enterprise Zone encompassed both the former steelworks site and a large open green space known as Merry Hill Farm. The site was brought by the Richardsons.

1984: Building work on the first phase of the shopping centre was started on the farm land.

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Christmas 1985: First three stores - Harris Queensway furniture store, MFI home furnishings and Atlantis Electrical superstore open.

April 1986: The first shopping mall and a second phase of the retail park opens. In July the Carrefour supermarket opened. This was later to become Asda.

1986: The first free-standing Pizza Hut in the UK opens. The UK's first drive-in McDonald's restaurant and the largest Texas Homecare store also opened.

1987: The shopping mall was extended with shops on the ground floor and upper floor opening by early 1988.

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1987: Merry Hill Minibuses was created to run bus services to and from the centre

November 1988: The centre's 10-screen cinema opens.

1988/1990: The Merry Hill Monorail is built between the centre and The Waterfront at a reported cost of £22 million.

1989/95: Building work to transform the steelworks land into The Waterfront complex. Waterfront Way was opened in December 1990 to serve the new complex and provide a link to the shopping centre.

June 1989: The 350-seat Jules Verne food court was opened featuring a globe-shaped balloon in its centre.This closed just a few years later and was redeveloped as shops.

November 14, 1989: The date marks the competition of the final phase of works to create Merry Hill. Debenhams, clothes retailer BHS, Marks & Spencer and Sainsburys were additions to the centre.

December 1990: The Richardsons sold the the shopping centre was sold to operators Mountleigh. The company later went into receivership. Merry Hill was sold to Chelsfield. It was later taken over by Australian based shopping centre operator Westfield.

Early 1990s: Works to create a formalised bus station next to the centre were started.

1992: Plans were scrapped to build the world's tallest tower at Merry Hill. It would have been 2,000ft tall, with a hotel at its base, a restaurant and a nightclub plus observatory.

April 1992: There was drama when firefighters had to help dozens of people escape from a stricken on the Merry Hill Monorail. Months later the Monorail was dismantled.

1995: TV presenter Michael Barrymore hosted his TV show My Kind of People at the centre.

1996: Monorail was put up for sale.

1998: Merry Hill Minibuses was sold Travel West Midlands.

2001: The former Monorail trains and track were transferred to a shopping centre in Queensland, Australia.

2002: Work started on housing and apartments around the Merry Hill complex.

2007: Roy's brother Don Richardson dies aged 77.

2009: A food court returned to Merry Hill when the £24 million Eat Central complex was opened by celebrity chef James Martin. It featured with sixteen food court units, space for three restaurant units and toilet area. A new centre entrance and car park was created for the attraction.

November 14, 2009: Roy Richardson celebrates Merry Hill's 20th anniversary by hosting a celebratory reception at Dudley Council House. He receives a letter from former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the anniversary thanking him for his 'initiative and vision' over the scheme.

When first unveiling their plan for the former Round Oak Steelworks site, they received a mixed response – some unsure it would work, others fearing the future of town centres.

But following the loss of the steelworks firm, which provided hundreds of jobs in Brierley Hill, Dudley Council saw the opportunity for the town to bounce back, and to help people back into work.

Aided by a newly set up Enterprise Zone, which provided a 10-year break in business rates and the ability to build without having to jump through the usual planning hoops, the Richardsons set off on their dream.

The first phase of the work saw the creation of two retail parks and a shopping mall, with furniture seller MFI being the first company to open in 1985.

Two years later the final stage of the development, the shopping mall, opened. It was extended before the centre was finally completed in 1989 – but it was a race against time to get it open before Christmas.

Contractors worked around the clock, with some plasterers being brought over from France to finish the luxury malls in time.

Despite the achievement of finishing six weeks before Christmas, on November 14, the work was far from simple.

Aside from the discontent of nearby community leaders about the centre's impact on nearby towns, buildings also faced difficulties in the form of 200 coal mining pits scattered underneath the ground.

They posed dangers for the contractors and meant expensive ground works had to be carried out as the 300-acre site, which included the former steelworks and a green space known as Merry Hill Farm, was built on.

Following completion, the centre has far from remained static over the past 25 years.

With retail today generating an annual rent of almost £55 million a year, there is plenty of competition for space at the centre, which has a 96 per cent occupancy rate.

Shops have of course come and gone, including the first store MFI, which exists now only online. But the big stores, Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams, have remained to anchor the centre ever since.

There were huge queues when Primark opened in 2007. Almost 150 bargain hunters waited for up to 12 hours to be among the first to get inside the store.

There has been an expansion in food, too.

Five years ago, the £24m Eat Central opened, featuring sixteen food court units, three restaurant units and a toilet area.

Nandos, Hey Potato and KFC were among the first to take their seat at the new area.

And it is not just about the shops. The centre has played host to dozens of children's TV characters over the years, attracting thousands of families.

Some of the appearances caused more of a frenzy than they bargained for. Three years ago, TV favourite Peppa Pig failed to turn up because of a flat tyre on the motorway, disappointing hundreds of children when it was announced over the tannoy.

Other events at the shopping centre include the regular circuses, held on the car park.

Some stars have got involved in the centre's Christmas Light turn-on event.

Tonight, girl band Little Mix will be doing the honours. In previous years it has been the likes of fellow X Factor stars Union J and Rylan Clark, Olly Murs and Chico.

For all the centre's success, there have, however, been failings. The £27m monorail, taking people to the centre's top tier from the Waterfront business complex, was opened in 1991, but closed five years later in 1996 due to technical problems.

The trains and the track were sold to a shopping centre on the other side of the world in Australia.

The 350-seat Jules Verne food court was opened with a 'Around the World in 80 Days' theme, with self-service food from China to America.

But it closed seven years after opening, giving way for a centre redevelopment which resulted in more shops.

And this week, it was announced the Quest attraction, which featured the highest rope walk in Europe, soft play areas and a Nerf combat arena, would close in six months.

Paragon Entertainment spent £1.3m on the project – but lost £90,000 over the past 12 months, and expects to lose another £11,000 over the next six months.

The Waterfront development was also created as part of the Richardsons' plans, with thousands of sq ft of office space built.

From the start it was filled with firms, restaurants and bars, but has struggled over the past decade. However, hope remains for the site following the launch of another enterprise zone, aimed at kickstarting regeneration. Yet despite its problems, the shopping centre's reputation stands tall among other major retail destinations, displayed when Intu spent more than £400m on a 50 per cent stake of the centre from former owner Westfield. The Merry Hill acquisition was part of a £867.8m deal which also included the takeover of Derby's Westfield centre and Sprucefield retail park in Northern Ireland.

Today it has 1.4m sq ft over two retail levels with 214 shop units. In a report published by retail specialists Harper Dennis Hobbs, Merry Hill shopping centre was ranked 77 out of 500 retail centres for the quality of shopping.

Asda employees Carol Bishop and Caron Adams started working at Merry Hill three years before it officially opened its doors. The pair were employed by French retailer Carrefour during 'phase one' of the centre's construction, at the site currently occupied by Asda, and have seen a fair bit of change since starting in 1986. Caron, 48, said: "The centre has expanded incredibly since it started.

"When it was just phase one there wasn't a lot going on but slowly they joined on bit by bit and it has become more and more popular ever since." Another Merry Hill employee who has seen a lot of change is Topshop Team Leader Kerry Bradshaw. She has also worked at Merry Hill for its entire 25-year history with stints at Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins and Topman. She said: "There was the old Jules Verne food court which was a bit different to the one now with plenty of Spanish and Italian offerings.

"And of course there was the monorail. When I was younger it became a bit of a standard joke that you shouldn't keep going on the monorail in case you got stuck on it.

"There used to be a pub in the centre too, up by where Superdrug is now.

"I used to love that. Everyone used to go there for dinner. I don't think I would do it now but it was really good." And with millions of people through the centre's doors during its 25-year history, the trio have experienced all the highs and lows of working at a busy shopping centre. For Kerry, celebrity visitors have always offered a bit of excitement. She said: "We've had him off the X Factor in Topman, Frankie Cocozza. He had all these people around him. Everyone is nudging each other and saying 'look who it is'.

As always at this time of year all the stores at Merry Hill are facing the difficulties of the Christmas rush. And despite having been through it many times before, Asda Training Co-ordinator Carol says it is never plain sailing.

"How would I describe the Christmas period. I would probably say it is...challenging," she said. "I wouldn't necessarily call it the best time as it is just so very, very, busy.

"You see that not only in the amount of people coming down but in the traffic to get here and get off to go home as well."

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