European Capital of Culture bid is money well spent

Culture Night Belfast is big business, with pubs, restaurants and hotels usually having one of their biggest nights of the year. Picture by Hugh Russell

JUST over ten years ago, a group of us working to ensure the development of the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast was moving in the right direction got together at the Belfast Circus School to talk about a new cultural event for the city. Culture Night Belfast was born. Culture Night is the cultural community's gift to the city, every event is free. Now fully under the guidance and control of the Cathedral Quarter Trust ( I am chair of the Trust, which is a charity), we've just had the ninth, hugely successful Culture Night in Belfast and in recent years that success has spread to other places. Derry took it up quickly and it is now one of the biggest nights in the year there and Hollywood has run one very successfully over the last few years also.

This year in Belfast, there were over 350 events at 150 locations which started at lunchtime and ran until 10pm. A new element this year was the spread of the events. From City Hall to Corporation Square and from Bank Square to the Big Fish, all street corners, squares, patches of grass, car parks, gable walls and gap sites were utilised by Kerry Rooney and his brilliant team. According to the PSNI and Translink, around 100,000 people took to the streets across the day and evening. It is now the single biggest cultural event in Belfast and one that seems to spread universal goodwill and happiness. ‘Culture' in its Culture Night guise threatens no one. It is a unifier in a city often divided along sectarian or other lines such as age or socio-economic status. I particularly like the spread of ages, from babies to octogenarians. I met a friend of mine pushing his elderly mother in her wheelchair down the cobblestoned Exchange Place at about 9pm that evening. That part of her night may have been a bit bumpy but she was having a great time.

Without getting overly philosophical about it, what Culture Night shows very clearly is that people can use culture as a way of coming together in enjoyable, fulfilling and often, very moving ways.

And of course, Culture Night is big business also, the pubs, restaurants and hotels usually have their biggest night of the year on that third Friday of September, though ‘black-eyed' Friday before Christmas is a big night too, albeit not one to be pushing your mother or your child around in.

I suppose there is nothing really new in recognising the unifying and life-affirming elements of cultural activities but Culture Night does seem to have had a real impact in Belfast and this year it was given extra impetus and importance because Belfast and Derry are bidding to become the European Capital of Culture in 2023. That might sound strange, two cities together trying to become a single Capital of Culture. The rules of the competition state that there must be a single candidate so it will be Belfast's name on the bid, but behind that, there is truly a joint effort from both councils going on which will benefit both cities. It's led from the top by the two chief executives, John Kelpie and Suzanne Wylie, who will do joint meetings in Brussels this week on the subject. Politically, it's working well also with buy-in from all of the political parties and the two mayors, Nuala McAllister and Maolíosa McHugh, who have been doing an impressive double-act on it, the latest of which was a shared platform at the very successful Homecoming Investment Conference in the new Titanic Hotel last Friday.

From a business perspective, the numbers speak for themselves. At events aimed at the business communities in both cities over the last couple of weeks, the projected figures for Galway, which will hold the title in 2020, have been given. Galway is expecting 5000 new jobs and £500 million of new investment including a reduction in talent migration of at least 20 per cent, and an escalating 10 per cent increase in the visitor numbers with a 40 per cent increase in the year itself. I think that brain drain issue is a really important one. The way careers work for young people these days means that there is an incredible opportunity to travel and therefore the atmosphere, beauty, amenities and available activities of a town or city play a huge role in attracting and retaining talent and investment. It's simple really, companies will invest where they know their staff will want to live and work happily. And culture, as we know, plays a big role in happiness.

Hence, business should get behind the European Capital of Culture bid and at the recent events this was made very clear and various mechanisms to show support were presented. Of a total estimated cost of £55 million the two cities will look to the private sector to find £5.5 million and companies, even small ones, can contribute via a monthly pledge of just over £20. Well worth the money I'd say!

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