Posted on Friday 10 May 2013 by Ulster Business

Derry Culture

By Stephen McVey

How far can the feel good factor be stretched following on from a festival year?

Organisers of Derry-Londonderry's City of Culture year believe the first steps in creating a long term legacy and changing the image and reputation of the city have been taken.

Derry certainly now looks the part. It has piqued initial interest with new-found beauty, charm and the exciting feelings of something fresh.

But it is also widely acknowledged that it's going to take more than 'one big weekend' of fun to build something sustainable.

Sharon O'Connor is the chief executive of Derry City Council; she argues that the dividends of the City of Culture can already be witnessed.

"It has been going really well and I think everybody is really happy with the events. We have new cafes and restaurants opening now that wouldn't have happened in a time of economic downturn were it not for the fact we have this cultural offer," she says.

"There is the thriving technology company, Kainos, which located in the city bringing very high quality jobs, who stated they would not have considered Derry were it not for the fact that the City of Culture project caught their attention. So we are seeing real tangible benefits but it's not a matter of counting the takings on 1st January 2014, you have to see this as a long term thing."

Robert Palmer is an expert consultant who has worked in the cultural sector for more than 30 years. He has advised cities in more than 20 countries on cultural development and was the Director of two European Capitals of Culture (ECC) – Glasgow (1990) and Brussels (2000).

He doesn't believe there is any "magic wand" that can be waved by the cultural year in terms of legacy.

"Sometimes there are mistaken claims that a year of culture can resolve, or in some way make very significant sustainable contributions to factors such as employment. I think it has been exaggerated. Some cities have been more successful than others with this, but if the gauge of success is related only to economic factors, then it's far too limited a measurement to determine success or failure of a City of Culture," he said.

It's a theme picked up on by Liz Meaney, the Arts officer of Cork city, who was involved when Cork held the title of ECC in 2005. She believes it takes time following a festival before benefits can be realised.

"There is an initial impact from tourism spend as part of any major cultural event and that does trickle down and benefit direct and indirect employment, and you can and should monitor what those impacts are. But there is a broader legacy. Cities are in competition with each other, they are in competition to prove their identity and give people a reason to come and invest, live and visit," she said.

Sharon O'Connor has pinpointed Glasgow's success and reversal in public perception as the model Derry is following.

"That's the kind of inspiration that is appropriate for us. What we are trying to do is to introduce the city to people who perhaps only have black and white images of the troubles in their head, to give them bright colours and a contemporary forward looking city image. I think in that respect we are already successful."

Ms O'Connor remarked that the economic benefits to being city of culture have been quoted out of context and reiterated that targets stipulated within 'The One plan' were set with the year 2020 in mind.

"If you have a look at the One Plan, it's a 10-year ambition and the target during that time is to attract about £500m worth of investment and double our tourism revenue. Now this is over a 10 year period and a lot of people have got confused about this sort of ambition for the city. We are not expecting to make millions of pounds of revenue in 2013, but what we are expecting to do is to see the benefits over a number of years. That was Glasgow's experience as well – it wasn't a flash in a pan, it was about a longer term approach."

The City Council CEO also doesn't see Derry's year as city of culture is simply a momentary money-earner.

"The fact is that even in an economically challenged period we have seen new businesses open, we've got new entrants to the tourism industry and we're attracting some high quality jobs that we wouldn't have attracted in other circumstances. But I think the whole bid was about economic and social opportunities. The legacy is about those social benefits not just pure, hard, cold cash in terms of economic return," she said.

In Robert Palmer's experience, social development is sometimes no more than rhetoric from organisers who are full of good intentions. However, in the case of Derry-Londonderry he is seeing initial signs of promise.

"In some cities there have been major developments in terms of improving social inclusion, of dealing with issues of division within the cities. In other cases there are cities where the events themselves have actually increased exclusion. So it depends how the city has managed the process of social engagement – the fact that the objective has been set doesn't necessarily mean the city has achieved that objective," he said.

"But in the case of Derry, which I have been following, I believe the city has set out with a deliberate process to achieve this and although it's early days there appears to be initial evidence that this process is having some effect. Whether the effect is sustainable or not is impossible to say until after the event itself."

A recent survey revealed that three quarters of Derry residents felt there was a need to improve employment opportunities and 52% also believed cross community relations needed to improve. There is a thin line when managing the expectations of citizens before, during and after a city of culture year, but Liz Meaney believes the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to an optimistic attitude.

"The affirmation of being given the nomination of city of culture is enormously important for the individuals who are operating culturally and also for the citizens themselves," she said. "When a city delivers to their targets, they then have a confidence to go on into the future and deliver programmes that perhaps they hadn't even imagined that they could deliver on. So their ability and capacity is hugely enhanced by the year itself."

Aberdeen is one of the bidders for UK City of Culture 2017 and has already garnered support from well known names such as Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. Bid manager, Rita Stephens has expressed Aberdeen's desire to move away from their existing associations with oil and gas and promote its rich culture.

"We are going all out to win this bid. It's such an aspiration for Aberdeen because we have a very rich cultural offering already and we see the City of Culture bid as a catalyst to enhance that and also to bring it out of the shadows. The important thing for us is to focus on the big picture – that we create this step-change in culture and leave a legacy for our current and future generations," she said.

Robert Palmer stresses that a city of culture cannot be abandoned by financial and political supporters once the year has finished.

"There is no way in which sustainable legacies can take place without continued investment, perhaps not at the level of investment of the cultural year itself, but any development has to be linked to additional resources. Finally there needs to be leadership – of course by the City Council but also leadership responsibilities of all the key stakeholders involved in the City of Culture."

This appears to be supported by the First Minister, Peter Robinson who claimed a further £15m would be invested in Derry and stated that "the Executive will continue to play its part in making sure the 2013 UK City of Culture will be a success".

The city of Derry can be proud of its first four months as the UK City of Culture. However the key challenges lie ahead. If tourists are to return, the city needs to make a lasting impression.

For the businesses and investors who had their heads turned during the carnival atmosphere in 2013, they will need to be charmed all over again in the cold light of day. But on January 1st 2014, Derry will at least have a shot at sustaining their successes.

 

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