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Where was was a Will, there is a way for Belfast

In happier times - Will Chamberlain and Paul McErlean

AROUND ten years ago, a pretty diverse group got together to form the Cathedral Quarter Steering Group. The initiative really came about as a result of a number of people agitating for the continued regeneration of the oldest part of Belfast city centre and to make the Cathedral Quarter a cultural hub for the city.

The physical work and some events funding had been started via the Laganside Corporation, but as it was wound up the regeneration powers passed to what was then the Department of Social Development. One of the chief agitators (he probably would have liked the title of ‘agitator-in-chief') was a man called Will Chamberlain, who tragically passed away last month at the age of just 52.

From the start, Will and I were the chair and vice-chair of the steering group which later was formalised into the Cathedral Quarter Trust. Up until his death, we were still in our respective roles and now only a month later, this is my version of Will's Month's Mind, his absence is already being felt.

Great cities depend on great people bringing their energy, resources and ideas to bear on the projects they are involved in. Will was one of the greats of this city. Will's major professional legacy is the incredible work and success of Belfast Community Circus based on Gordon street in Cathedral Quarter.

You may not be aware of it but the Circus school brings skills, confidence and joy to thousands of young people every year and Will, the former street performing clown, had a vision to expand it and give Belfast a new purpose-built building. I hope that vision can still be realised.

The Circus school said last month: “We would not be the envy of the world without his foresight, drive and ambition for us. Will was also a wonderful friend to us all, inspiring us with his vision, drive and determination and his utter belief that we could achieve the dream.”

Having said that, Will wasn't easy! He could be forcefully opinionated, passionate and the odd time, more than a bit blunt, though he'd normally stick a comic jab on at the end of one of his tirades, just to soften the blow. It didn't always work. Most of all though, Will really cared and that showed in everything he did. Even the painting of his bins!

Simply put, the Trust and the Destination Cathedral Quarter Business Improvement District board of which he was also a member, will not be the same without him, though his dedication, commitment and work lives on in many of the initiatives which make the Cathedral Quarter a special place.

One of those is Culture Night, the ever-growing celebration of culture which the Trust delivers every year. The formative meeting of Culture Night which started the journey ten years ago was hosted by Will at the Circus School. He'd been a passionate supporter and initiator since.

One of the last initiatives to grab his attention was the joint bid for the European Capital of Culture in 2023. I was reading some of the accounts of the judging process of Ireland's failed Rugby World Cup bid over the weekend. Thankfully, I expect the process for Belfast and Derry to be cleaner and fairer. The bid document is already submitted and before the end of this month, a team will fly to London to present it to 12 judges from across Europe.

The hope is that we make the short-list of two cities. From where I sit, real leadership has been shown by Suzanne Wylie and John Kelpie, the respective chief executives and we have two teams within the councils who have knuckled down together in a really positive way.

I've written before about my mate Enda McShane, now in the US building his Velocity Worldwide into a global company and I'll tell his story properly some one of these days, but my favourite phrase of his is: "If you're not on the field, you can't score a goal".

The two councils are on the field now and surely an unexpected benefit is how well the team has come together, a level of understanding and collegiality has been born from the very top downwards and that will help on many other fronts in the future no doubt.

The economic benefits are very clear. Win or lose, both councils are working to develop a joint Stimulus Growth Package and are committed to including this bid as part of that work but we want to win and if you look at the estimated benefits from when Liverpool held the title, a £750m return on a £170m spend, it's easy to understand why. The top-line return to the two cities in 2023 is estimated at £1 billion. That's a big number in anybody's terms and the business community here needs to sit up, take notice and see how it can assist.

As for Will, of course, his concern was to make sure the right emphasis and content was put into the cultural programme and infrastructure that will drive all that economic benefit, he was a willing and passionate contributor to the workshops that went on for months this year to help the bid book get put together. Even for his sake alone, I hope we pass through this next stage.

And finally, one month on, with life I'm sure having to find a new rhythm without him, my sympathies go out to his two daughters, Ellie and Bethany, who were his pride and joy, and to his partner Cath and also to all his friends and colleagues at the Circus School.

Cheers Will - it was a pleasure, a laugh and always an education working with you for the last ten years, you are sorely missed.

:: Paul McErlean (paul@mcepublicrelations.com) is managing director of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Claire Aiken

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