Proposals for a major new urban retail and cultural complex in Derry are now being progressed.
Local entrepreneurs and aspiring young business people have been joined by several established arts groups to develop plans for a ‘Box Park’ using large shipping containers as units.
The group is currently conducting detailed research and looking into the feasibility of different sites around the city centre region.
The park would be focused on training young people for real careers and promoting homegrown businesses and organisations to help address the problems facing the city, such as unemployment, lack of training opportunities, and emigration of talented young professionals.
It would provide a unique and flexible mixed retail, food and artistic hub for the town that would also provide a contemporary new urban offering for local people and tourists alike. The project has been inspired by urban and box park developments in London, Dublin and elsewhere.
Local quantity surveyor, Deaglan Long, said the project, in the weeks since it was announced, has garnered a favourable response from a wide range of sectors and politicians, and from local people at home and abroad.
“The overall feeling from the response is really, really positive and it has spurred us on now to get this going properly,” Mr Long said. “We want to get together a really comprehensive study which lays out exactly our thinking, what the benefits of it are, and how we can actually achieve it, and then identifying particular sites in Derry where we can put this into practice and then approach the decision makers. When we have got it altogether we are hoping to have a showcase event where we could actually demonstrate how it would work.”
He added: “We know we are on the right lines, that this isn’t just us thinking this.
“We’ve come up with idea and our generation are all backing it and excited about it, and want to see it happen.”
Mr Long, who has also conducted research among Derry emigrants around why they left and whether the would come back, said many people saw the Box Park as a way of helping to nurture and retain local talent, and could even attract some people to return to the city.
He said: “This isn’t to take away from out-of-town activity, it’s to create a platform into it. This is to give the younger people a start to build a brand and they might move into the town when they are established and pay rent and rates.”
Ben Holly, who is hoping to base his cross-border Wild Atlantic Wave business at the Box Park, said: “This would be an affordable platform for people to showcase what they have and allow them to achieve the next level, instead of having to wait years and years and have to save up all their money to get into a space in Derry.”
Donal O’Doherty from UV Arts and Stephen McMonagle from Connect the Space, are among the young arts professionals in the city who have joined forces with the others to develop the plans.
Donal said: “We have been looking at sites throughout the last year and thinking, ‘Where could we move to with potential?’ There’s a lot of people in the creative arts in Derry, and we want to try to keep those people here. There’s no artists’ studios in Derry and a lot of the arts organisations are under immense pressure because of the cuts. But rent and rates has a big part of it.
“We’re a non-for-profit arts organisation and we have on average we have between 500 to 1,000 young people coming through the doors each year. We worked a lot on mental health, on promotion of different services and with young people. They come to us and its an engagement tool.
“When I saw what the others were planning, and we knew each other, we thought we could create that enviornment together. You could have young people coming down and doing projects and seeing people from their own town that are successful and driven and trying to create change in their own city instead of them saying ‘there’s nothing here for me’.“What’s to stop them saying I’m going to start my own business and going for it?
“It’s coming to a head. I think we are all like-minded. There’s a proactive approach. We have all been having the same ideas and we want to move it forward. We all have a need for it.”
Stephen McMonagle added: “We want to create something people can gravitate towards, an experience, so it is not just about working, business, it could also be potentially about a cultural hub.
“This could be very easily set up. There would be a bit of a process in terms of technical processes and planning which will take months, but in terms of the physicality, kitting out the units, that could be achieved quite quickly.
“We’re putting a plan of action together to show it is tangible. Everyone of us is doing a wee bit to push it forward.”
Mr. McMonagle said that figures within the North West Regional College and local music outfits were among those who had shown interest in the project.
The group have said they would like to be up and running by the time the Clipper Maritime festival opens next year, and that a new hub could link into plans to expand the city’s greenway walking and cycling routes out to the border on either side and beyond.