The Creative Quarter: Kathy McArdle

Photos: Nick Archer
Interview: Ashley Carter
Wednesday 16 April 2014
reading time: min, words

The Creative Quarter got everyone talking back when it was announced in 2012 but became one of the most misunderstood projects that the city’s ever seen. Kathy McArdle - the Creative Quarter’s Chief Operating Officer - worked in the regeneration of Temple Bar, Dublin and Media City, Salford Quays, and has been in post for a year now. We caught up with her to try and get a few facts straight and see how it’s all been going…


What is the Creative Quarter?
The geographical area is primarily made up of The Lace Market, Hockley, Sneinton Market and The Island site. Secondly, the Creative Quarter Company is an organisation created to help support existing businesses to grow and develop.

What are CQ’s main responsibilities?
We work to attract new business and investment into the area and support existing businesses. We want to make the area an attractive place to do business by helping create a sociable and attractive environment with a great scene, somewhere where enterprising things happen and where talented young people feel welcome.

What do you think people’s expectations were?
The Creative Quarter was set up as Nottingham’s flagship project under the Nottingham Growth Plan, a £60m package, so there were big expectations of what the project would deliver. The main problem was that people automatically assumed all the money was going directly into the Creative Quarter area, when in actual fact that money was going into a whole range of finance schemes, which weren’t all directly applicable to the Creative Quarter.

What was the money used for?
£8m is to improve the public realm in the Creative Quarter, for example funding pedestrian improvements on Broad Street and Heathcoat Street, which will hopefully make the area more inviting and create a café culture. £1m is going into the Creative Quarter loan scheme, which has already made fifteen or sixteen loans to businesses in the Creative Quarter, supporting job creation. Another £1m is going into Next Business Generation, which is a programme to create new companies. Another £10m went into the Nottingham Technology Grant Scheme, which grants funds for businesses in the three priority sectors (life sciences, clean tech and digital content). And then £40m has gone into a venture capital fund that will invest in companies who may or may not end up based in the Creative Quarter.

How do you try to ensure that people from so many different backgrounds and disciplines work together?
We’ve got lots of organisations of different sizes working across a wide variety of sectors. It’s about trying to make them understand that collectively the sum is greater than the part, and that if they do work together and everyone plays their part, they can make a really compelling project to be involved with. The Creative Quarter company was brand new so initially the focus was very much on activity, relationship building, partnership development, getting some quick wins, a pop-up centre and a start-up weekend. The latter was for thirty-five young entrepreneurs, in conjunction with Broadway and BioCity Next Business Generation.

How successful was the pop-up shop?
It was a huge success. Forty different businesses traded out of there, which was brilliant as it allowed us to engage with some fantastic new and established businesses. It was also a great way of showcasing all the amazing things that are made in Nottingham, as well as the designer culture, which is often invisible. It attracted around 15,000 visitors over seven weeks, providing a turnover of about £40,000, all of which went back into the traders’ pockets. It was a great example of how successful a project can be when people work in collaboration.

How do you hope to do improve the area?
We are looking at how we can revitalise Hockley. If you look around there is a lot of empty, unused office space and old heritage properties that desperately need to be brought back to life. Sneinton Market is being refurbished over the next two years, so it will be interesting to see how we can support businesses to go into that area. Part of our mission is to make sure the environment is right for creative businesses to grow and flourish. The metaphor we use is a kind of gardening metaphor: it’s not about teaching people how to garden, or teaching plants how to grow, it’s about making sure that the soil is watered, the seeds are planted, and there is enough sunshine!

Have people been impatient waiting for results?
At first there was negative feeling as the expectations were raised too high when the scheme was announced in October 2012. There is still a lot of work to do, but perceptions have already shifted. I think Nottingham is quite a fast-paced city in general. There is a lot of frustration with big projects that have been proposed continually over the last ten years and haven’t quite come to fruition, that’s why Sneinton Market is really important. Over the last decade there has been a lot of talk about it becoming the Covent Garden of Nottingham, but for a whole variety of reasons this hasn’t materialised. Nottingham City Council bought back the site earlier this year and are hoping that refurbishments will be finished in December 2015. Sneinton Market will become a symbol that says that this is a project that can, and will, deliver, rather than a set of empty promises.

The Covent Garden comparison is interesting because London has long been seen as the eventual place for Nottingham’s creatives to move to in order to make a decent living. Can you turn Nottingham into a place where people can feasibly make enough money to not have to leave?
That is absolutely one of the aspirations and ambitions of the project. If you have created a mass of businesses, and they have access to the right markets, that definitely becomes a place where graduates can move to the city and find employment or stay and set up their own business and feel confident that they can flourish.

You’re not from Nottingham, do you see that as being either an advantage or disadvantage?
It has been a disadvantage in that I didn’t know anyone when I first came here. I knew of Nottingham Contemporary and I found out about LeftLion before I interviewed. Coming to a new city, you have to build rapport and relationships with people over a very short space of time. I carry a lot of experience from working in Liverpool, Media City in Salford Quays on the regeneration project and in Temple Bar, Dublin, which was being developed as Europe’s first cultural quarter.

What do you think has been your biggest success so far?
The biggest thing we’ve done is a little bit invisible, but we lobbied the D2N2 [a local enterprise partnership for Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, Derby and Derbyshire] to make sure the creative industries were included in their strategic economic growth plan. That took a lot of work behind the scenes but it is really important as it is ensures the creative industries are a priority in the economic growth of the region.

Who else is on the team?
It started with just me but now I’m joined by Dan, our administrator, and Sarah, who does all of our marketing and communications. In reality we’re a tiny organisation.

If you were able to start again what would you do differently?
Looking back it would have been very useful to have mapped and audited the Creative Quarter but it would have taken six months, and just didn’t feel like the best use of my time back then as we had to focus on getting people and businesses engaged.

What do you want to do in the next twelve months?
In the next year we will publish our Creative Quarter plan for 2014 – 2023. We’re going to support the Creative Quarter Connect program and focus on ramping up the business and cultural events in the Creative Quarter, which we have a little bit of funding for. We’d also like to grow the website further. With refurbishing some of the properties in the area, I would really like to see a revitalised Hockley. We want to ensure that the Creative Quarter, and in particular The Lace Market, feature heavily in the city’s heritage strategy. There’s a great deal of history in the area, which is a greatly underused resource.

Creative Quarter website

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