MAJOR improvements worth more than £50 million have been announced for Merry Hill to transform the shopping centre into the ultimate family shopping and leisure destination in the region.

The coronavirus pandemic and successive lockdowns over the last year have hit shopping centres hard and seen off a number of big high street chain stores including Debenhams, Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridges, Oasis, Warehouse, Burton, Wallis and Gap.

But Merry Hill bosses say they have continued to trade exceptionally well and during the past 15 months, since Covid reared its head, the mall has secured 22 new or renewed agreements with shops and restaurants including Superdry, HMV, Foot Asylum, Hamleys and Bon Pan - and the centre has been identified as the strongest in the West Midlands in terms of sales performance, according to data from retail specialists Javelin Group.

Despite the lockdowns and social distancing restrictions in place - more than 16 million visits were made last year to Merry Hill which remained open for essential stores such as pharmacies and supermarkets to operate.

But the shopping centre's chiefs say footfall has now recovered to nearly 2019 levels, with the mall outperforming city centre locations including Birmingham.

To capitalise on its strengths - plans are now afoot to give the shopping centre a design overhaul as well as introducing a host of new features and attractions to continue to attract big name brands as well as local and independent businesses.

Numerous stores are reportedly planning significant upgrades including Asda, which is investing £3 million into store improvements.

A new family entertainment leisure district is also being considered to allow visitors of all ages to enjoy fun, social activities in between shopping, and an improved range of cafés, pubs, restaurants and other eateries throughout the shopping centre.

Signage at the shopping centre, which is the eighth-largest in the UK, will also be drastically improved to allow visitors to navigate with greater ease than ever before.

The plans, described as “ambitious” by West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, will be spearheaded by Ellandi – the UK’s leading privately-owned shopping centre operator – which was appointed asset manager of Merry Hill in September 2020.

Mark Robinson, co-founder of Ellandi, said: “Our plans mean that by July 2025, Merry Hill will be the West Midlands’ most vibrant family lifestyle destination, embedded right in the heart of the local community.

“When complete, shoppers will be able to visit a range of new, big-name brands, in addition to familiar favourites and independent retailers. We are also thrilled to confirm Merry Hill will welcome a range of all-new family leisure attractions, providing visitors with plenty of fun and excitement in between shopping and dining.

“The expected arrival of the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension in late 2023, which will see the creation of a new station close to The Waterfront, will also make getting to and from the centre easier and more environmentally-friendly than ever before.

“We are working with key stakeholders such as Dudley Council to ensure the arrival of the Metro and the exciting Future High Street Fund plans for Brierley Hill are built on to create a inclusive environment for the local community as well as a best in class regional destination.

“We are extremely confident that our ambitious plans will transform the centre into the premier retail and leisure designation of choice for the West Midlands – creating a cherished destination that the whole community can take pride in.

“Despite the past 15 months, exciting occupiers seem to share our vision with over 20 units currently in negotiations with new retailers to Merry Hill.”

Improvements made at The Waterfront in recent years will also continue under the ambitious plans.

Today's announcement comes as the last main intu sign was removed, with £14 million works to install new decorative panelling outside the centre nearing completion and marking a new beginning for Merry Hill.

Merry Hill's new centre manager Jonathan Poole, who previously managed The Liberty centre in Romford, said news of the investment puts Merry Hill "on track to become the unrivalled shopping and family leisure destination for the West Midlands" and he said: "The West Midlands is a wonderfully diverse and welcoming part of the country, and I have been truly blown away by the amount of pride people take in their local culture and heritage.

“Kicking off with our first-phase relaunch in September, the programme of improvements, upgrades and attractions will breathe new life into the centre, delivering an unparalleled experience for visitors from all over the region.

“We know people love Merry Hill for being home to more than 250 shops, but we also want them to love it as a leisure and lifestyle destination too – and these improvements will deliver just that; a contemporary, attractive environment offering a spectrum of big-name and independent brands, as well as a range of new dining destinations – ensuring that customers will want to return time and again.”

The plans include works to make Merry Hill as sustainable as possible, with an ambitious net-zero goal set for 2030 which will be achieved through initiatives including the installation of solar panels and more than 200 electric vehicle charging points.

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, said: “Merry Hill is one of the UK’s most popular shopping destinations and a real asset to the Black Country and the wider West Midlands.

“I am absolutely delighted that Ellandi is putting significant investment in to take the shopping centre to the next level. Not only will these fantastic plans help to breathe new life into the centre, but it also represents yet more significant private sector investment in the West Midlands.

“That businesses are still investing here despite the uncertainty the pandemic has caused speaks volumes for how far the West Midlands has come in recent years.

“I wish the team at Merry Hill the very best for the coming months and years, and I absolutely cannot wait to see these ambitious plans come to life.”

Dudley South MP Mike Wood, whose constituency covers Merry Hill, added: “As a major supporter of jobs in our region, this £50 million plus boost for Merry Hill will ensure the continued prosperity of thousands of constituents, all while delivering a premiere shopping and leisure destination in the heart of the West Midlands.”