Probably the outstanding example of small town regeneration in Scotland is West Kilbride. It is a coastal town about 45 kilometers from Glasgow. It has a population of just under 5,000 inhabitants. Although it has quite an affluent population, decline had set in by the mid-1990s, when about half of the retail properties on the town’s main street were empty and boarded up.
The revival began in 1998. A not-for-profit company was set up, West Kilbride Community Initiative Limited (WKCIL). It is run by volunteers from the town, and employs just one person. It has taken a culture-led approach to regenerating the town. It concentrated its efforts on the main street, the traditional shopping areas where so many buildings were empty and so giving the whole town a depressed atmosphere. You can see a recent presentation about the work at http://www.befs.org.uk/uploads/SmallTowns/Craft_Town_Scotland_BE_Helensburgh.pdf.
The regeneration began with the lease of one single shop. The empty store was given a facelift and opened as WK Initiative. It served as a community information centre and provided space that local craft workers could use.
The vision was to create a themed Craft Town, while also conserving the heritage and built environment, and developing tourism and events. In 1999 volunteers formed an Environment Group to undertake the task of improving gardens and walkways in the town.
In 2001 two studios were rented very cheaply, and sub-let to craft workers. WKCIL now operates eight craft studios, a community gift shop and a craft exhibition gallery. West Kilbride is now “Craft Town Scotland”.
Most small towns have a few key public buildings. As public spending is squeezed or habits change, these can easily fall out of use. When this happens the effect on the feel of the town can be very negative. Thus one of the key early moves in West Kilbride was the leasing of the village hall that was threatened with closure. Not only was the building a valuable community resource, but it occupied a very visible corner site in the town.
The local enthusiasts then went a stage further and bought the Barony Church for £7,000. It had been disused since 1978. It is protected under legislation as a building of architectural and historic importance, and is part of an area of the town where urban conservation powers apply, giving planners stronger controls over development likely to change the character of the place.
A key step forward came in 2003, when the Scottish Government local economic development agency, Scottish Enterprise Ayrshire, gave £115,000 over 4 years, on condition that the funding was matched by funds from WKCIL. The investment was to allow for the purchase and refurbishment of craft studios, the employment of a part-time development officer and some marketing. Local fund raising activities were undertaken such as second hand furniture sales and a craft fair. In addition there was income generated from the craft studios. The necessary sum of money was more than matched.
In 2005 a former bank building was also refurbished, to provide a Contemporary Craft Gallery exhibition space. Over the years regular events and festivals have been staged by WKCIL to attract shoppers and boost community involvement in town activities.
A long-lasting effort
The refurbishment and reuse of the church was a long-running project. In the end more than Euros 1.75 million was raised from a range of sources, including the EU’s LEADER programme for rural development. The town was also fortunate in being able to draw on the professional know-how of some of its residents to help them steer through this major project.
It opened in 2012 and is now the Craft Exhibition and Activities Centre and is a focal point for Craft Town Scotland and a regional focus for craft and design. It has an exhibition area and retail space, a café and offices, workshops and an activity space. For more information, see www.crafttownscotland.org. The active engagement of the town’s youths has been an important part of the work, and they are making use of the Centre. A team of volunteers, including teenagers and pensioners, give their time to the running of the centre.
Success breeds success.
The Craft Exhibition and Activities Centre and the Craft Town Scotland studios act as “anchor points” on the main street, rather in the way that large, well-known department stores and supermarkets do within a shopping mall. They have helped to secure the occupancy of other retail premises around them.
Similarly, the mobilisation of local businesses has led to the formation of a Business Group in the town, independent of the WKCIL.
As news of the Craft Town has spread, tourists have been drawn in to West Kilbride. It is accessible to Glasgow and in an area where there has been a tradition of local tourism – a day out to the coast. So West Kilbride has been able to capitalise on assets that were always present, but previously had not been used to good effect.
The magic formula
So what is the magic formula? Maggie Broadley who has played a great part in leading the regeneration sums it up as Passion + Perseverance + Innovation. Next time IC visits Scotland, a trip to West Kilbride should be on the itinerary.