Since the proliferation of big box stores and malls small cities have been struggling to keep their downtowns engaging and profitable for businesses. What if we rethought our downtowns to be about people and making a community instead of profit centres? That’s the very question a small city in the UK asked and found the answer was to make the city for people. They converted old stores to community spaces and sure enough more people kept showing up. Now their city is vibrant and businesses want to be there to capture all the foot traffic. If you put people first then the rest will follow.
The Stockton vision is to buy up, repurpose, restore and reconfigure the heart of the town, emphasising events, independent enterprise, green space and conviviality. As a glamorous statement of intent, in just over a fortnight one of the finest art deco theatres in Britain will reopen its doors. The Globe, a Grade II listed building, has stood derelict on the high street for a quarter of a century, rotting from within. Built in 1935, in its heyday it hosted the Beatles, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder. On 6 September, McFly will play the first gig of a new era, at the biggest venue of its kind between Newcastle and Leeds.
The cost of the lavish and exquisite restoration – funded by council borrowing and a lottery grant – soared close to £30m and has generated political pushback. But according to Claire Frawley, the council’s town centre development officer, it will provide jobs, a revitalised sense of place and a footfall of up to 200,000 visitors a year, acting as a regenerative hub for the new Stockton.
“People are desperate to get involved,” says Frawley, “they’re desperate to come and work here. There will be public tours soon, and the local demand is huge. This place is part of the town’s heritage and you can feel the pride.”