Kate Josephs was impressed by the avalanche of suggestions for the department store, and the city centre, and says now is the right time to listen to them.
She said she wanted to create the conditions where people ‘feel part of something’ as the city recovers from the blow. But she insisted it did not ‘scupper’ the £480m Heart of the City project which was ‘adaptable and varied’ and was ‘more than bricks and mortar’.
John Lewis has announced plans not to reopen the Barker’s Pool store after lockdown, putting 299 jobs at risk and ending a shopping era in Sheffield. More than 15,000 people have signed a petition against the move.
Ms Josephs said: "There are plenty of creative people in the city who might have radical ideas. Let's hear from those with real creativity and real imagination. Coming out of the pandemic, let this now be the time to do it. We can decide it's the death knell for the city centre or decide to build the city of the future people want to visit.
“As a resident of Sheffield I appreciate this is a big loss. It says a lot that so many have signed a petition and I have been struck by the reaction and the comments in The Star and on social media.
“I really want to create the conditions where people, businesses, institutions and potential investors feel part of something, rather than me being some sort of Victorian idea of a chief executive.
“I’m thinking of ways to capitalise on the brilliant ideas on social media. We need to particularly engage with young people about what they want because we want them to stay and build their lives here.
“I need to be careful to look wider than what resonates with me - a mid-40s mum. I'm sad I won’t be able to take my daughter to Cole Brothers the way my mother did with me."
For many years the city centre regeneration project hinged on John Lewis as an anchor store. But the block-by-block approach of Heart of the City mean its closure is less of a disaster - although it is still a huge blow to the city centre’s retail offer.
Last summer, the council bought the building from John Lewis to ensure it did not end up boarded up if the shop closed.
Suggestions for it now include a ‘retail laboratory’ for start-up shops which can expand within the building, social housing, rooftop gardens, an arts and concert venue and a new home for the Graves Gallery, as well as restaurants and cafes.
Ms Josephs said the city still has some ‘really good retail brands’ but they could not be ‘entirely dependent’ on it in future and had to invest in a variety of uses including culture, offices, residential, business support and public realm.
John Lewis blamed the pandemic and internet shopping for its decision. They also had an impact on Arcadia and led to the closure of Debenhams, Topshop, Burton and other high street names.
Ms Josephs said: “City centres globally are having to reimagine what they are for. During the pandemic people have missed the ability to connect.”
The Future High Streets Fund, which will see £16m spent on Fargate and High Street, was ‘all built around music, events and entertainment’, she added.
Ms Josephs, who started in January, said she was also planning to head to London to build Sheffield's national profile 'as soon as I'm allowed'.
She added: “I get that it is a big part of my job to create the conditions where the city is being positive for the future.
"I will invest my time and energy in building national relationships. Newcastle is a good example, they've been really proactive getting to London and talking about what they are doing.
“We do need to put the work in and sustain it over the years. I will get down to London and meet politicians and investors as soon as I'm allowed.
“But it’s not just me, it’s all our MPs, business leaders and anchor institutions. there are a ton of people who care and need to talk positively about Sheffield on a national stage.”
She also hailed the strength of relations between the public and private sectors in Leeds which were based on a common purpose and trust.
She added: “We need to be a city that is constantly seeking to do better and improve, I will always say that. And we can look with humility to other cities, not to copy them as such. I have said it before: Sheffield needs to come out from under its blanket.
“What do we want to be known for?”
Council officials have said John Lewis will have to pay the authority for breaking its 20-year rent agreement.
A John Lewis spokeswoman said: “Discussions with the council are ongoing. As such it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”
But she acknowledged the strength of feeling locally.
She added: “We have had some emails from our Sheffield customers and we are replying to these directly.
“With regards to the petition, we are aware of it and we are incredibly grateful for the support our shop has received - the strength of feeling underlines what a difficult decision proposing to close has been.
“Our priority now is our Sheffield Partners and ensuring they are fully supported throughout the consultation process. Redundancies are a last resort, but if confirmed, we will do everything we can to keep as many as possible within our business.”