Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture earned the city around £800m in extra income – half of which came directly from tourism. If Londonderry becomes the first ever UK City of Culture in 2013, the economic benefit will not match Liverpool’s – but should be substantial nonetheless.
As part of the bidding process, the city council and Ilex made estimates of the likely economic impacts if the bid succeeds. They calculate that City of Culture status should generate an 18% growth in residential visitors and a 20% growth in day trippers in 2013 and 2014. The council says that it wants to use the bid as a means of growing the city’s creative sector by 25%, with an additional 15,000 sq ft of space made available for the knowledge and creative sectors.
The council and its partners want to develop the strategy further by attracting additional private sector investment into tourism and leisure provision and by growing higher and further education provision in the city.
A spokeswoman for Derry City Council says: “The substantial range and variety of programmes and venues along with creativity, important links with education and business creates a hub for culture that is expressive and entrepreneurial. There is an energy surrounding culture: we’ve a very young and talented population in the city and region. The City of Culture is the right way to harness this creativity and energy for the city and Northern Ireland.
“There are many benefits for the city in pursuing this bid. We must ensure we leave a legacy for younger people. It’s about restoring pride in the city and encouraging the wider public to have confidence in the city, as a place to be proud of. It also strengthens our appeal to local people, visitors, and investors among many international audiences.”
The opportunity to bid for UK City of Culture came along with perfect timing – 2013 is the 400th anniversary of the Plantation of Ulster and the building of the city’s walls. It is also a neat fit in terms of the pre-existing strategy for local economic growth and regeneration based around culture, closely following an investment programme which saw the refurbishment of the Playhouse and the Waterside Theatre and the building of An Gaelaras (an Irish cultural centre), and with the development of a new heritage quarter underway at the former Ebrington Barracks.
Mo Durkan, spokeswoman for Derry’s urban regeneration company Ilex, explains: “Arts, culture and tourism will form a growing force in the economic regeneration of the city. One of the key economic drivers is tourism, which includes arts and culture. There has been very serious capital investment in culture in recent years.”
Garvan O’Doherty, one of Derry’s most successful entrepreneurs, whose company owns a range of hospitality and property businesses, believes the City of Culture bid builds on an existing strength. “The tourism opportunities from cultural activities are already well established, for example through the annual jazz, drama, comedy and Irish cultural festivals in the city,” he suggests. “They all bring significant income to Derry.
“But if Derry actually becomes the UK City of Culture – and I really believe this is possible – then it takes the earnings potential and economic benefits for the city to another level. The most exciting likely outcome is that it would boost the tourism infrastructure of the city beyond the tipping point, so that we start getting exponential growth in tourism earnings. Of all the contenders, Derry would derive greatest benefit as UK City of Culture because it would accelerate the development of the beautiful city and a much more meaningful substantive impact on achieving its potential for citizens and visitors alike.”
This message is echoed by SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan. “Achieving City of Culture status would bring enormous benefits to our city,” says the MP. “It would not only attract tens of millions of pounds in spending throughout the year itself, attracted by the energy and vitality of the types of events which are proposed, but there will be tremendous spin-offs in the preparation for the year. The legacy of that investment will also provide a rolling contribution to the North West economy.
“While the tourism, culture and arts industries and communities will benefit most directly there will be wider accruals to Derry’s economy. The prospectus heralds exciting opportunities for growth in growing sectors such as the digital economy, not least in digital media where we have a strong platform already.”
A similar view is put forward by enterprise minister Arlene Foster who says the whole of Northern Ireland stands to benefit if the city’s bid is approved. “It would provide a wonderful platform for attracting new visitors and create opportunities to market Northern Ireland to new audiences,” she says.
Jim Sammon, president of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, is also very upbeat. “The tourism sector will hugely benefit in terms of increased business for hotels; this may mean even the construction of new hotels and will certainly see increased sales of roomnights and hospitality,” he argues. “This in turn should create new career opportunities, training and jobs.
“Our cultural offering, which is already strong, will be underpinned and boosted as word spreads about the richness of visual, verbal and performing arts. Our Walled City will welcome thousands of new visitors. Our schools and university will benefit from new ideas, new demands, new opportunities. New business start-ups will happen as people will gain a new confidence. Existing businesses will do better – more work for taxis, shops and cafés will see the difference.”
But despite the momentum that now exists behind the proposal, it could yet fall apart through local political disagreements. The initial proposal submitted by the city council and Ilex had all party political support at the council, including from the council’s second largest group, Sinn Fein.
When the news of the short-listing was announced, the city’s mayor, Sinn Fein’s Cllr Paul Fleming, welcomed it, saying: “This is a great statement of confidence in the city’s cultural wealth and an endorsement of the commitment and effort so far. We look forward to building partnerships to progress through to the final stage.”
However, Sinn Fein representatives declined to comment for this article on whether they still support the bid given that it is a competition restricted to UK cities. It is understood that the party has yet to reach a final decision on supporting the bid. The period of waiting now begins – and not just for the judges’ verdict.