Juliette Bains: Arena success sparked £50m makeover

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On the regrettably rare days that I get the chance to watch some trashy daytime telly, there’s nothing I like better than a fairytale-esque home renovation show.

You know the ones I mean, where they take some rickety, run-down hovel that could be Steptoe and Son’s second home and turn it into a trendy pad that a footballer’s wife would be proud to call their own.

So you can imagine my glee at watching a similar transformation unfold right here in Leeds.

It might not have been that obvious to you, as it’s been quite the slow burner.

But the area around the Leeds arena has slowly but surely been undergoing a quiet transformation.

Since the arena opened back in the summer of 2013 (doesn’t time fly?), its surroundings originally struggled to keep pace with the £60m investment.

If you cast your minds back over the last few years and the area’s been far from the first choice for a day or night out.

Popular noodle bar Fuji Hiro and tapas restaurant Viva Cuba were the only real reasons to venture to that side of town.

The run-down and tired looking Merrion Market had seen its glory days come and go, there were a lot of empty units and generally the whole area had seen better days.

In fact the one time I persuaded a friend to park near there, we returned to find their car was broken into.

Fast forward to 2015 though, and the whole of the arena-facing side of the Merrion Centre has been given a complete makeover.

I’m not talking one of those 60-minute makeovers with a lick of paint and some fancy stencil designs à la Laurence Llewelyn Bowen either.

The shopping centre’s entire market was ripped out and replaced with a shiny new gym alongside snazzy bars and restaurants. The ambitious Arena Quarter project has cost £13m, and was part of a £50m refurbishment for the centre.

The project is still ongoing too, with new additions every few months.

With such a massive wad of money being ploughed into this area of the city centre, it’s nice to see it’s actually paying off.

Last week, the YEP reported the Merrion Centre had its busiest year since it opened 50 years ago, with 11.2m visitors.

The figures speak for themselves and it goes to show that it takes one development, one catalyst like the arena, to trigger a wave of investment.

At the start there were the usual naysayers, who questioned whether it was going to work in an area on the outskirts of the city centre.

But now it’s the arena bosses and local businesses who are having the last laugh.

The proof came this week as it was revealed that Leeds is home to the 5th busiest arena in the UK – and the 21st busiest in the world.

The venue drew in 470,000 people last year, beating places in Australia and America.

No doubt many of the concertgoers will have eaten or had a drink at the neighbouring Merrion Centre just a stone’s throw away, and may in future be staying at the Hilton hotel just down the road when it opens in summer.

Nearby Merrion Street has also been given a boost with bars like Brotherhood and Manahatta opening and the street being pedestrianised to make way for more visitors.

Some of the bars down that end of town are now among the most popular for those seeking an alternative to Call Lane.

Such success is great, but it’ll be interesting to see what knock-on effect, if any, it has on other parts of the city centre.

As we’ve seen before, one area’s feast can mean another’s famine. But for now, just like my cheesy renovation shows, I’m simply looking forward to seeing the end results of a £50m makeover.

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