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The Comedy of Errors

Stephen Barker: The Creative Quarter's New CEO

26 December 17 words: Jared Wilson
photos: Curtis Powell

The Creative Quarter was set up by Nottingham City Council in 2012 to help create jobs and economic growth in the east of the city: the Lace Market, Hockley, BioCity and Sneinton Market all included. Now that former CEO Kathy McArdle has handed the reins over to Stephen Barker, we thought we’d hit him up to see what his plans are with the organisation...

First off, can you explain what the Creative Quarter actually is? There appears to be a bit of confusion. Is it a geographical area? Or a company that supports creative businesses?
It’s both. And more. The Creative Quarter is an area of Nottingham that was originally defined as part of Nottingham’s City Deal with the government. I don’t think the boundary is as important as it has been. In the past, it has seemed to exclude some, and I want all creative businesses and creative individuals to feel they have a stake in it. You can’t contain creativity in a single place, nor can you corral creative businesses into one part of the city. By necessity, some things are only available within the boundary, but our mission is broader.

How does the organisation benefit Nottingham?
We want to encourage creative businesses to start and grow in Nottingham, and we want creative people to find plenty of job opportunities available locally. We also want students – particularly at NTU, as it’s directly involved with the CQ – to find career opportunities, and to contribute to our economy and community.

The Creative Quarter provides business support services to creative organisations right across the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership area. The Big House project we deliver with seven partner organisations supports the start-up and growth of businesses in the creative and digital industries across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, generating more wealth for local benefit. Increasingly, we have a role in what’s called placemaking; with the City Council and NTU, we’re creating a part of Nottingham that’s attractive to people who want to study creative subjects and work in creative businesses, as well as people who want to set up those businesses.

That means making the Creative Quarter a place that looks and feels right. We need to offer a lifestyle as much as a place to work or study, so we’ll continue to improve the environment, and support the start-up and growth of the kind of retail and leisure businesses that support a creative economy, and boost the area’s cultural appeal. We’ll be working with property owners to create more space for creative businesses to flourish, and we’ll be working with Marketing NG to promote the Creative Quarter as an investment destination to creative businesses and development investors in the UK – London especially – as well as overseas.

Tell us a bit about the work you’ve done before this role…
I came to Nottingham to go to what was then Trent Poly in 1985, and I’ve spent most of the thirty years since here. Once upon a time, before LeftLion even, Nottingham had a listings magazine called Overall There is a Smell of Fried Onions, and I was involved in that. In the early nineties, I managed a shop on Goosegate that sold futons and I worked for the City Council as a small-business advisor at Lenton Business Centre.

Later, I was the Communications Manager for the building of the first tramline and as Director of Communications and Marketing at the City Council I was responsible for the Cleaner, Safer, Proud of Nottingham branding. I’ve also worked in agriculture; driving tractors and milking cows. And I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few years travelling.

Can you explain to us how the CQ is funded, and how the money is spent?
The Creative Quarter is jointly funded by Nottingham City Council and Nottingham Trent University, and we also get management fees for some of the project work we do. Most of what we have is used to match the EU funding we get to deliver the Big House services. We are a small team operating from a simple office at Sneinton Market Avenues, and we don’t have a lot of what you might call “spending money.”

Can you tell us about the work of your predecessor Kathy McArdle? She was in post for four years; what did she achieve during her time at the CQ and how do you plan to build on her work?
Kathy did a great job in creating the identity of the Creative Quarter and bringing the community together with some great events; lots of businesses have benefitted from support services and there have been some significant improvements to the streetscene. My role is to lead it onto the next level and to have more economic impact. I’m working on a five-year plan: we want to help NTU’s creative campus grow, we want to see some key buildings brought back into use, and more clustering of creative businesses. Hopefully we’ll attract some significant investments and see an upturn in the number of jobs created.

Of course, Brexit will have happened in that time. Creative jobs are easily relocated – all the more reason to make them stick in Nottingham – and the Big House project is funded with European money, so by the end of 2019 the Creative Quarter may be a differently shaped organisation.

What can you offer to fledgling creative businesses just starting out?
We can help people to understand if running a business is right for them, and help them prepare properly before getting started. Once up and running, we can provide advice and learning opportunities that help people to get off to the right start and avoid some common obstacles. Most of this support comes in the form of contact with experts and advisors, plus there are some grant and loan opportunities.

I think it’s important that people understand our primary mission is job creation. That does mean jobs for individual creatives and makers, but we’re also looking for businesses that have real growth potential, that might employ two people now, twenty people next year and a couple of hundred the year after that. That means businesses involved in sectors as wide-ranging as gaming, financial technology, digital technology, and the life sciences.

It took a long time for the units in Sneinton Market Avenues to fill up, and now the place is looking a bit more lively. Can you explain why the units were empty for so long?
The Avenue units were difficult to let initially because of European funding restrictions around direct selling that have now been relaxed to allow the sale of products made on the premises. The units are now full; they’re not all occupied as yet, but tenants have been found for all of them and we’re now having to turn people away.

There are a lot of great things happening in the area: Blend is a fabulous coffee shop; the Fox & Grapes has just opened; the Nottingham Craft Ale festival is coming next year; and we’re starting a new market soon. I think, by next summer, a lot more of us will be spending quite a bit of our leisure time down the Avenues or in Sneinton Square. Largely, that will be down to us at the Creative Quarter and our tenants at the Avenues, but it will also be because the – as yet undeveloped – Avenues near the square have been bought by a private developer who has some really exciting plans to create an events space, retail and food outlets, and buildings for both student and live-work accommodation.

This developer has had a positive impact elsewhere in the Creative Quarter; he owns the buildings that house Rough Trade, Bar Iberico and The Angel Microbrewery among others, and his plans for Sneinton are at the public consultation stage now.

What do you want the legacy of the Creative Quarter to be?
I want it to be known as one of the best places in the country to start and grow a creative business. I want it to be a fun place to learn, to live and to work, and I want Nottingham to have the reputation for creativity that it deserves. There shouldn’t be any reasons to have to leave, so the legacy must be more jobs and opportunities for people born and bred in Nottingham, as well as those who want to come and live here.

Is there anything else you wanted to say?
If you see me around and you want to talk about the Creative Quarter, please speak to me or email me. I’ll be holding some open consultation events in the new year. Please do come along.

If you’d like to get in touch with Stephen via email, drop him a line on [email protected]

Creative Quarter website

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