Paul McErlean: Let me tell you a Belfast Story . . .
LAST Monday night at about 7pm, I walked from a hotel on Piccadilly to another hotel, close to Westminster. I haven’t been in London since the start of the pandemic, and it was great to be back. The walk took me through the Christmas market on Leicester Square and down Charing Cross Road and along the east side of Trafalgar Square to Northumberland Avenue. The place was buzzing and jammed with people. It was a hugely enjoyable walk and reminded me of the real excitement a big city can generate.
The easy thing to do would be to come home and complain about Belfast in comparison, but I really dislike that approach. I believe that a more positive and better way to look at these things is to ask what can we learn from them and how we can do things better as a result. Two weeks ago at an event organised by the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, which is going from strength to strength under its CEO Simon Hamilton and its current president Alana Coyle, I got a good insight into one great opportunity to make Belfast better and help create the buzz you could almost touch in London last week.
The purpose of the event was introduce the local business community to Belfast’s next major visitor attraction, Belfast Stories, set to open in 2028. As the current name indicates it will be part exhibition space – a place to house and showcase the city’s stories but it is also set to have a state-of-the-art screen centre which will house NI Screen and social spaces a-plenty: places to eat, drink and meet people - locals and tourists together. The ultimate design, which will be the subject of an international competition will also include a rooftop terrace and park with panoramic views of the city from which many more of our tourist attractions can be seen and explored. With regards to scale, it will be big: somewhere between Titanic Belfast and the Ulster Museum.
The first consultation for the Belfast Stories project is coming to an end. During this period hundreds of individuals and organisations have been consulted to give their ideas and opinions about the plans for this new visitor destination to be situated in and behind the beautiful art-deco Bank of Ireland building on the corner of North Street and Royal Avenue.
Consultation events have been held in community hubs across the city, in 2 Royal Avenue, City Hall and with many different sectoral and interest groups, including the business community, the Irish language sector, various stakeholders in community and voluntary sector, tourism industry and the arts and screen sectors.
The consultation process has focused on introducing the concept, explaining the ambitions for the site, the building and its internal design and how Belfast Stories will provide a springboard to the wider city and its cultural and tourism offerings. With storylines turning into city lines, visitors will be encouraged to explore all Belfast has to offer and Belfast will be cemented as a 48-hour visitor destination. The story concept is central to this, the stories of this place define us, and the consultation has asked for feedback on the concept of how to gather and collate stories, grouped the stories by theme; ensured an inclusive framework and engaged with people on how best to collect, present and curate stories.
Feedback from the consultation events has been overwhelmingly positive, with an acknowledgement of the potential this project has for city centre regeneration, attracting tourists and providing indoor and outdoor social spaces for locals. There’s a sense of urgency around the story gathering, with those consulted referring to their grandparents or former teachers and wanting to make sure opportunities aren’t missed.
The Belfast Stories team have set themselves the ambitious target of gathering one million stories, using a variety of mediums. Beginning next year with an audit of what already exists, followed by comprehensive process to gather more and a promise to continue well into the future and reflect Belfast as it grows and changes. This exciting process will start soon and continue long after Belfast Stories opens its doors in 2028.
My mum's sister and brother, Joe and Annie Doyle, like so many at the time, left their home off the Falls Road and took the boat for New York in the 1950s. In the early nineties, I remember going to Ellis Island where I thought they had first landed, to look for their names but unfortunately it was before that archive was properly digitised and made public and I couldn't find them.
What a story they must have had and what a story they created through their children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren, many of whom we are still in touch with. My mum, Joe and Annie are now passed, but Joe's wife Margaret (nee Loughran) is alive and well in New York.
I am going to get her story and my cousins' stories for Belfast Stories - part of the rich tapestry of this place and one which will bring people back here to visit for generations to come - creating a buzz borne from genuine history, unique to Belfast in a stunning building that we can be proud of. Put that in your pipe and smoke it London!
:: Paul McErlean is chief executive of MCE Public Relations
:: Next week: Andrew Webb