I grew up in a typical English seaside town called Whitley Bay. I often heard stories of how the town used to come alive in the summer months, with streams of holiday-makers flocking to the north east coast to visit the famous ‘Spanish City’ resort, with its iconic white Dome.
In its heyday, the Spanish City boasted a concert hall, restaurant and tearooms, roof garden, ballroom and permanent funfair that attracted tens of thousands of visitors. But by the 1980s the resort was on its knees, crippled by package holidays and their exotic new promise of sun, sea and sangria. Whitley Bay’s gleaming Dome had faded and the area around it became derelict. By 2000 this symbol of a bygone age had closed its doors to the public, seemingly for the final time.
The Spanish City wasn’t alone
Up and down the country, there are neglected historic buildings and places whose crumbling facades and eroding fabric have become symbols for failed economies or societies. Today, in almost every town and city there is at least one historic building standing empty, an eyesore that once took pride of place at the heart of its local community.
Whilst much-loved, the huge financial challenges which face these buildings mean that their redevelopment costs are unviable - no bank will loan the money needed to save them. Too expensive to restore, they sit vacant, stifling regeneration and scaring-off much needed investment.
But there is hope
At HLF we have long realised the latent power these places have to build regeneration and deliver an economic boost to local communities. In 2013, we published New ideas need old buildings, research which provided powerful evidence that heritage can often be a major driver of economic growth. It showed that historic buildings and the historic quarters of towns and cities are the very places where new ideas and new economic activity are most likely to happen.
So, in April of last year we launched Heritage Enterprise, a new funding programme to tackle ‘problem buildings’ like the Spanish City Dome. By offering grants from £100,000 to £5million, Heritage Enterprise funds the ‘conservation deficit’ holding these buildings back. That is, where the value of the building is so low and the cost of work is so high that the project just isn’t commercially viable.
Now, through Heritage Enterprise we’re encouraging not-for-profit organisations, such as community groups and social enterprises, to work in partnership with the private sector to rescue and return these buildings to a viable, productive use. We are funding heritage projects which will spur the growth of local economies and generate new income, and create new jobs and opportunities for skills development.
We knew the demand for this kind of funding was likely to be huge and in the last 12 months we’ve seen a tremendous amount of interest from people hoping to revive derelict cinemas, factories, mills, warehouses, schools, pubs and even fairgrounds; a huge range of community assets are now coming forward as transformational local projects.
It’s early days, but so far we’ve allocated more than £28million of funding to 11 projects across the UK. In Northern Ireland, we hope £5million of Lottery money will transform the former Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices in Belfast into an 87-bedroom boutique hotel.
And in Stockton on Tees there are plans to use £4million of HLF investment to rescue and repair The Globe, an Art Deco ‘super theatre’ which closed in 1997, and develop it as a 2500-seater live music and comedy venue following £4million of HLF investment.
But, I hear you ask, what about Whitley Bay and its famous Dome?
Well, at the end of 2013 I was delighted when HLF’s trustees decided to award the Spanish City £3.7m to undertake the vital repairs needed to bring it back to its former glory. It will be fully renovated as a leisure, retail and enterprise hub. The restored, revitalised Dome will once again return to the heart of Whitley Bay and, hopefully, make local people incredibly proud of their town once again.