New building, new gaffer… but The Sentinel carries on

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Former Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi.

Last week was a momentous one for Sentinel staff with the announcement of the impending move to the city centre and the departure of our Editor-in-Chief.

We had known about both decisions for some time and, while they were tinged with sadness, they also mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the newspaper’s history.

They remind us that while buildings and people may change, the newspaper itself continues inexorably – constantly adapting and evolving to suit its readership and patch.

Relocating to Hanley, where The Sentinel has been based for most of its 159 years, represents a return to our spiritual home.

The move makes absolute sense as we no longer have a print works here at Etruria and, happily, it coincides with the multi-million regeneration of the city centre.

Our new home from the Autumn, the former Bethesda Sunday School, is steeped in history and we couldn’t have chosen a better base for a company which has been part of the fabric of life in this neck of the woods since 1854.

Handily located next to the Cultural Quarter and the proposed Central Business District, it means shoppers and anyone working in the area can nip in for a chat with a Sentinel reporter.

We’ll also only be a stone’s throw away from Hanley Police Station, Hanley Community Fire Station, the crown court and our contacts at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, The Regent Theatre and the Vicki Hall – among others.

That’s not to say that moving won’t be a wrench. The Sentinel has been at Festival Park since 1987 and many of us have fond memories of colleagues, past editions and countless hours spent here at this sprawling site next to the canal where the last remnants of Josiah Wedgwood’s original factory stand as a reminder of the city’s proud industrial heritage.

For exactly half the 15 years yours truly has been with my home-town newspaper, the man who has just vacated the big chair has been my ‘gaffer’.

I knew Mike Sassi before he arrived in North Staffordshire, having previously worked with him at the Derby Telegraph.

No two Editors are ever the same and, believe me, the appointment of the top man, or woman, is still a matter of great significance – and not just for the writers and photographers who report to them.

To my mind a newspaper, partisan or non-partisan, will always reflect the personality and passions of its Editor.

In that respect, I think we dropped lucky when Mike Sassi took over in December 2005 (I can say that without being accused of fishing for a pay rise because he’s gone).

I think it’s fair to say that he was at the helm during some of the most turbulent years that the newspaper industry has faced – given the economic situation and the way in which the internet has changed the game.

However, rather than retreating, Mike had us reaching out to our readership in new and innovative ways, staging major public events and forging partnerships with a variety of organisations.

The Our Heroes awards, the Class Act campaign which gave away tens of thousands of pounds to local schools, the Young Journalist Awards, and the hugely-popular Stoke’s Top Talent variety competition all happened on his watch.

These weren’t events intended to make us money or flog papers. Rather they were intended to cement The Sentinel at the heart of the communities it serves.

The campaigns we ran were the same: From Save Our Staffords which successfully fought to preserve the name of our local regiment with a 17,000-strong petition, through to the battle to bring the Staffordshire Hoard at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

But perhaps what I will remember most about Mike’s tenure was a night in December 2011 when yours truly was up to his neck in the troubles engulfing Port Vale.

It was Mike’s brave decision to run with the stories exposing how supporters had been misled by the then board of directors which led to the resignation of the club’s chief executive and the subsequent sacking of its chairman.

Any journalist will tell you that having the support of your Editor when the big calls are made is absolutely priceless.

Mike Sassi worked extremely hard to try to learn what makes North Staffordshire and its people tick.

He was as excited as anyone with Stoke City’s appearance at Wembley and the club’s adventures in Europe; Chuffed to bits with Vale’s recent promotion and genuinely proud to see the Staffordshire Saxon statue unveiled at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

I think our loss is genuinely the Nottingham Post’s gain but, as Mike will tell you himself, any Editor is simply the custodian – the caretaker, if you will – for the brand. He’ll hate this fuss but he’s earned it, in my opinion, and I’d like to wish Mike all the best in his new job.

Meanwhile, the original Neverending Story that is The Sentinel continues…

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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It’s good that local people can be bothered to take a stand

The March on Stoke protesters.

The March on Stoke protesters.

Politically-speaking, Stoke-on-Trent has been a basket case for so long that a good many people have stopped caring about who runs the local council and don’t bother to vote.

That’s if they ever did, of course.

I’m convinced this isn’t just a case of common or garden voter apathy.

I think people are now so battered by town hall scandals and cock-ups – such as the Dimensions debacle – that they view politics locally as broken.

That doesn’t mean they think everyone who works for the city council is rubbish. Far from it.

It simply means that there is a perception that some of the people voted in to represent taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent either aren’t up to the job or have displayed self-interest time and time again.

They can’t understand why the same people – tarred with the brush of failed plans and media exposés – are still involved in local politics.

Taxpayers can’t have been too enamoured either with the bizarre decision to advertise incompetence and a simple lack of humanity via the BBC mockumentary The Year The Town Hall Shrank.

I think we can also add in to the mix a general feeling of ‘it’s pointless voting because Labour will get in anyway’ – never a healthy status quo at any level, irrespective of the party involved.

These are perhaps the reasons that an extremist group like the BNP was able to gain a foothold in recent years.

Once it did, the unpalatable truth is that some of the party’s members proved to be decent ward councillors – irrespective of what people may think of the BNP’s stated policies and aims.

Ultimately, at a local level, I can well understand why a pensioner in Longton or Meir might eschew voting for mainstream parties if someone else came along who seemed only too willing to listen to their problems and make sure his or her bin was emptied and that the street lights were working.

I don’t doubt that Ukip will be eyeing the Potteries as somewhere it can legitimately expect some success at the next elections in 2015.

But, for me, what is more significant as we look to the future is that people who have shown no interest in climbing the greasy pole before are becoming political animals.

It is perhaps this threat which the ruling Labour group would do well to heed in the coming months.

Galvanised, among other things, by the decision to relocate the city council’s Civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley, protesters are turning to the polls in order to effect change.

The Potteries Towns and Villages Group (PTAV), which will become a formalised body later this week, plans to challenge for all 44 seats up for grabs at the local elections in two years’ time.

Founded by members of the action group March On Stoke, its stated aims include: To regenerate the city more equally (rather than just focusing on Hanley); To increase the number of senior council officials with strong ties to the city; And make local government ‘more open and transparent’.

All are laudable objectives which should play well with the electorate.

The fixation of current and previous administrations with the city centre (Hanley to the rest of us) has started to grate on people across the Potteries.

Yes, they will agree, we do need to have a defined city centre – a beating retail heart with cultural gems like the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Regent Theatre, Victoria Hall, Mitchell Youth Arts Centre and Bethesda Chapel.

However, they would argue, this nurturing of Hanley need not be at the expense of Stoke-on-Trent’s other five towns.

Moving towards a situation where more of the local authority’s senior staff are born and bred Stokies, or at least have strong links with the city, is more tricky.

The idea of employing more key people who care about Stoke-on-Trent because they have a stake in it sounds good in principle but I’m not sure how this could be achieved in practice.

Making local government more transparent is an even more difficult objective but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.

Set aside for a moment the tier of bullet-proof senior officers within any local authority, the fact it is very hard to get elected members to admit mistakes or make themselves accountable for their actions.

Although perhaps this is where the members of PTAV, if enough people show interest in standing for the group, may have an advantage.

One of the reasons that local politics, and politics generally, is such a murky business, is that people are constrained by the rosettes they wear – whipped into toeing the party line.

PTAV members, you would hope, are putting their heads above the parapet precisely because they want local people to be represented by others who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

There is no guarantee that this new movement will sustain its momentum or gain enough support over the next two years to make a dent at the ballot box.

However, the fact that they care enough to mount a challenge bodes well for the future of democracy in our city and will, at least, give the mainstream parties locally food for thought.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

I understand city council move but Hanley cannot succeed in isolation

As someone who is very passionate about the Mother Town of the Potteries I can well understand the incredulity, the anger and the fear felt by some in the wake of the city council’s decision to transfer its workforce from Stoke to Hanley.

It is impossible to escape the comparison between this move and the bombshell closure of Royal Doulton’s Nile Street factory in 2005 which ripped the heart out of Burslem.

The decision will rankle even more with taxpayers because it presents us with a back to the future scenario.

Twenty years ago I recall the uproar when the powers-that-be at the council decided to move its employees from Hanley to a new, purpose-built Civic Centre in Stoke.

Now an entirely different administration – and that is an important distinction to make – thinks it is a good idea for the authority’s 2,000 or so staff to go back to Hanley again.

Personally, I think the logic behind the move is sound – and not just because, ultimately, it will save money.

Let’s face it, however much we bang on about the unique nature of our Six Towns every city worth the name has a city centre recognised by shoppers, tourists and businesses alike.

Like it or not, by quirk of history, Hanley has for decades been the beating heart of Stoke-on-Trent – albeit sometimes beating more weakly than we would perhaps have liked.

It has the most shops of any of the towns, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, the city’s finest theatre, and other cultural gems such as the Mitchell Arts Centre, Bethesda Chapel and the Town Hall.

Very soon, after decades of delays, it will also have a brand new bus station to go with the enormous Tesco store which has tidied up the bottom end of the town.

Then we have the absurdly-named but undeniably exciting prospect of the new City Sentral shopping complex together with the planned expansion of the Potteries Shopping Centre.

There can be no denying that Hanley is ‘on the up’ and this is something we should all be pleased about.

In the past various schemes and visions have faltered at the eleventh hour because of the local authority’s inability to secure a so-called ‘anchor tenant’.

It has failed, for example, to attract a big name retail store or employer that has been prepared commit to investing in an area in order to tempt other businesses to follow suit.

One of the main reasons for this has been that Hanley has been viewed as saturated in terms of its retail offer.

In other words, developers thought there simply weren’t enough people in the city centre to justify further investment and expansion.

Of course, this all changes if the local authority switches its entire workforce to Hanley and becomes the ‘anchor tenant’ for the proposed ‘business district’.

Suddenly, the city centre is a far more attractive proposition for all concerned.

I think that a popular, successful and economically-viable Hanley is a must if Stoke-on-Trent is to drag itself out of the doldrums in these most austere times. But I’m afraid this will require radical and sometimes painful decisions and just a little bit of that horrible phrase: ‘thinking outside the box’.

But what of Stoke, and indeed, the other seemingly-forgotten towns?

The worst-case scenario here is that the city council’s decision to relocate turns Stoke into a ghost town of empty office buildings and condemns businesses who have relied on city council workers for custom to a slow death.

The idea of pulling the Civic Centre building together with the former Spode site and the Kingsway car park and offering that up as a package sound reasonable – so long as the long-term viability and care of the King’s Hall can be assured.

However, we mustn’t forget that this a vision.

It is the small print on the master plan to inject fresh life and impetus into the city centre.

What is needed now is a genuine concerted effort to find a new purpose for those key sites in Stoke.

Perhaps the expansion of the University Quarter (UniQ) development across the A500 and into the town of Stoke proper is the best way of filling the vacuum that will be left by the city council’s relocation.

What is certain is that it will take years for the benefits of a thriving city centre to trickle down to the other five towns.

In the meantime, it is vital the local authority puts as much energy into find unique selling points for Stoke, Burslem, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall as it has done into aiding the city centre in order that Hanley’s poor relations don’t become poorer still.

Stoke-on-Trent desperately needs a successful city centre but, by the same token, it cannot succeed in isolation.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Stalwart Mick recalls opening of Potteries Shopping Centre

With a new bus station due and a multi-million pound shopping centre soon to follow, the landscape is certainly changing up ’Anley.

Not since the late Eighties have we seen development on this scale in the town.

Back then we were all awaiting the opening of a new venue that would, quite literally, transform what people were starting to call the city centre.

For what seemed like an eternity, white hoardings surrounded the vast building site.

Then, on June 1, 1988 The Potteries Shopping Centre opened its doors to customers for the first time.

Working that day was Michael Steele, who had begun his job as a security officer two weeks earlier.

Almost a quarter of a century later and Mick is still keeping customers safe and happy in his role as Operations Manager.

Mick, who lives in Burslem, remembers that time vividly as the new job represented a leap into the unknown for him.

He said: “I had previously worked at H&R Johnson’s for 11 years and was made redundant in the April of 1988.

“I saw the job advertised in The Sentinel and I remember the day of my interview quite clearly as I had to fight through workmen to get to the offices for the meeting.

“It was very daunting at the time. I had only ever worked in a factory environment and so this sort of job was all new to me.

“I remember the boss telling us to ‘get lost’ and he meant it. He wanted us all to know the place like the back of our hands because he knew that very soon there would be people asking us for directions.

“I remember thinking how big it was. Five and a half acres and 11,000 square metres of corridors.” etc.”

Of course, not everyone was impressed with the new-fangled shopping mall.

Mick, pictured, said: “I remember one elderly gentlemen coming through the doors for the first time and saying to a young woman, who I assumed to be his daughter, ‘I’ll give it five years before it’s a bowling alley’.”

Fortunately, that particular visitor was wrong and 24 years later The Potteries Shopping Centre remains a huge success story.

It currently boasts around 80 stores and has a popular 120-stall market underneath it. Together, they attract more than 13 million visitors each year.

Surprisingly, many of the shopping centre’s first tenants – such as Burton and Dorothy Perkins – are still in situ alongside newer arrivals like Costa Coffee and the Disney store.

Mick said: “There have been changes and comings and goings, obviously, but not as many as people might think.

“I think people are now quite proud of The Potteries Shopping Centre and the market. It helps that we are very well integrated in the local community and do a lot of charity work.”

Over the years Mick has rubbed shoulders with a variety of celebrities who have turned up on his doorstep – from the TV Gladiator Panther and comedians Cannon and Ball to stargazer Patrick Moore. CBE.

There was also the time when the Power Rangers visited the mall and Mick, wielding a loud hailer, was left to deal with expectant crowds of mums and children when the superheroes’ train was delayed.

“Oh, and I held the door open for Britt Ekland too,” said the 59-year-old.

There’s no doubt, however, that Christmas is Mick’s favourite time of the year.

He said: “The atmosphere transforms in November when our opening hours change and the Christmas lights are switched on.

“Now that Lewis’s has gone I suppose The Potteries Shopping Centre is the focal point for Christmas celebrations because we have Santa’s grotto and it’s great to be a part of the planning process. An awful lot of work goes in to making it a special time.”

Last year it was announced that the venue’s owners, Capital Shopping Centres, are to spend £14 million expanding the complex to create a 10-screen cinema and six ‘family-friendly’ restaurants overlooking a new pedestrian avenue.

And, fingers crossed, Mick will be here to oversee that next chapter.

He added: “I’ve probably got another five years left to work – if they keep me – and I can honestly say working here remains an absolute pleasure. I’ve been very lucky.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekly Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia