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North West arts venues: The impact of major cultural developments

North West arts venues: The impact of major cultural developments

Millions of pounds are being invested in new arts venues across the North West, but what is their true value to the areas they’re being built in, the region as a whole and the wider Northern Powerhouse?

Words by Natasha Young 

When Chester’s £37 million Storyhouse opened in 2017, it arrived with ambitions to “attract the broadest possible audience from Chester and beyond, helping to revitalise the city and at the same time to re-invent the role of civic cultural buildings in the 21st Century”.

Blending old architecture with new, as the Grade II-listed Odeon cinema building was converted and extended, the attraction brought a new library, theatres, a cinema, restaurant and bars.

Having reached completion on time and on budget, the venue has since been pulling in visitors and putting the area under the spotlight.

According to Storyhouse, it has turned out to be “one of the country’s most successful cultural buildings, with one million customers in its first year,” not to mention recently grabbing attention with an official opening by the Queen and Duchess of Sussex.

The positive impact of Storyhouse on the city and its Cheshire surroundings was becoming apparent before Royal guests and droves of culture-seeking visitors were wandering through its doors though.

“Before Storyhouse, Chester was seriously underweight in terms of culture and now I’d say that for a regional city, culturally we’ve got some fantastic content.”

“Several years ago Arts Council England and Visit England launched the Cultural Destinations fund and at that stage we were unable to bid for it because we didn’t really have anything to leverage, we had no story and nothing to say,” explains Katrina Michel, chief executive of Marketing Cheshire and a Storyhouse trustee.

“Whereas in 2017, because we had Storyhouse opening and other people were already talking about doing things in and around Storyhouse, we were able not only to bid for it but we received £300,000 to try to develop Chester and Cheshire as a cultural destination.

“Before Storyhouse, Chester was seriously underweight in terms of culture and now I’d say that for a regional city, culturally we’ve got some fantastic content.”

Looking ahead, Michel believes Chester must continue progressing its cultural and night time offer amid the city’s ongoing regeneration to ensure Storyhouse becomes part of a “bigger cultural cluster”.

Numerous residential and hotel projects are in the pipeline there, which in turn will increase footfall at night. Meanwhile Chester’s increase in commercial space thanks to developments like City Place “brings in people for whom a cultural lifestyle is very important,” says Michel.

“If I have one concern then unless things move on a bit Storyhouse will be doing all the major heavy lifting for the night time economy,” she adds.

“We’ve got quite a few new hotels and restaurants coming in but it would be great to have other night time offer that’s less traditional. We’ve got a Picturehouse cinema scheduled, one of these more trendy market concepts, and it’d be really great to have more stuff that gives people a bit more choice.”

A rise in hospitality businesses is also being seen in Knowsley’s Prescot, helped, in part, by its looming Shakespeare North Playhouse development.

Kier Construction is scheduled to begin the main construction of the theatre and education hub in autumn 2018, with completion due in summer 2020 and the first students due to start courses in October that year.

> Related | Funding boost for Prescot’s Shakespeare North Playhouse

“The Bard micro pub opened earlier this year and building work on a new Shakespeare-themed boutique hotel is starting this summer,” explains Councillor Tony Brennan, Knowsley Council’s cabinet member for regeneration and economic development. “There are new restaurants planned including Pinion Bistro, Kingsmen and Urbano Chiringuito, while Albion Bakehouse is opening a second business.”

A transformation of Prescot’s Market Place, creating a café and outdoor events space run by MATE Productions, is also getting underway in July and supermarket chain Aldi is developing plans for a store alongside a coffee drive-thru, pub, employment units and a fast food restaurant on land off Cables Way.

Knowsley is confident such growth can only increase as its prominent cultural development gathers pace.

“The Shakespeare North Playhouse will be a distinctive high quality visitor attraction for Prescot, Knowsley and the wider Liverpool City Region, attracting over 100,000 new visitors to the area each year from across the UK and internationally,” says Cllr Brennan.

“It’s estimated the project will increase the value of goods and services produced in the city region by £13m during construction and by £5.3m each year following opening.

“It’ll also bring new high quality jobs, growth of the local economy, increased footfall in Prescot town centre, new business investment and improved access to world class educational and cultural activities for young people and local communities.”

The work of Knowsley Place Board, which promotes the area as a destination to live, work and visit, is being enhanced by the project too.

“It’s incredibly exciting and is the best example of a place-based approach to economic growth that I know,” says Edward Perry, chair of the board. “When the public, private and voluntary sectors bring their energies and ambitions into a single vision, projects become unstoppable.”

Perry believes the playhouse’s arrival will “turbo-boost Knowsley’s economic growth, its confidence as a place and the self-assurance of its people” whilst capitalising on the “unique asset” that is the borough’s genuine historic links to the Bard and early English theatre.

According to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which aims to increase the North’s impact on the UK economy, culture presents an opportunity “to tell the story of a place and the wider Northern Powerhouse” – something it says has been particularly successful during the current Great Exhibition of the North and Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture status of 10 years ago.

“The Factory in Manchester is a further critical project which, as part of our wider work in culture and the arts, will help build up further the great assets many of our cities and towns here in the North have,” says Henri Murison, the partnership’s director.

Another major cultural centre for the North West which, like Shakespeare North, has received government backing, The Factory is being built within Allied London’s St. John’s neighbourhood.

Ground broke on the project, which is being led by Manchester City Council in partnership with Manchester International Festival (MIF), in July 2017 and amendments to the scheme are due to go to planning in the coming months.

“The economic benefits to the city and wider region are huge, and it’ll also have a significant impact on arts education and the development of creative and technical talent.”

Whilst the city may already be home to a plethora of cultural venues and an ever-growing creative sector, expectations are high for the impact of the forthcoming building designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

“The Factory will be a world-class venue right in the middle of Manchester and is going to change lives as well as the cultural landscape,” says Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese, predicting it will be “like no other venue in the range, scope and scale of cultural opportunities it will provide”.

The venue, to be managed by MIF, is expected to create or support 1,500 full-time jobs and add £1.1 billion to Manchester’s economy in its first decade, with a programme targeting local, national and international audiences.

“The economic benefits to the city and wider region are huge, and it’ll also have a significant impact on arts education and the development of creative and technical talent,” adds Sir Leese.

MIF’s CEO and artistic director, John McGrath describes The Factory as a “fantastic opportunity for Manchester and the wider region,” suggesting it underlines the commitment of local and national government to “culture at the heart of the city’s future success as a place to live, visit and invest in”.

“At 13,500 sq m this unique building will enable artists to create work of scale and ambition that cannot be made anywhere else, strengthening Manchester’s reputation as an internationally important centre for culture and creativity,” says McGrath.

“The Factory will open up a new neighbourhood in the city, bringing audiences of up to 850,000, drawn by a year-long programme of great work from across the UK and around the world. They will also be able to enjoy the many other first-rate attractions the city has to offer.”

Elsewhere in the region there are projects much further from fruition but seen as no less important to their areas’ long term success.

A proposed new St Helens Arts and Cultural Centre, to be located at the World of Glass, forms part of a wider vision to redevelop and transform the town centre.

Architects have been procured to produce a concept design for the complex, which would sit alongside the regenerated canal and include feature conference and exhibition facilities.

“An arts and cultural centre within the town will provide people with an attractive alternative to visit the town centre and a competitive advantage over nearby towns, as well as forming part of the wider vision to redevelop and transform St Helens town centre,” says a St Helens Council spokesperson.