Beki and Jo at the Good Things Collective

What it takes to keep doors open on the high street

Beki Melrose and Jo Bambrough are founders of the Good Things Collective (formerly the Exchange Creative Community), a creative hub in Morecambe. In the summer of 2020, Lancaster City Council agreed to a community asset transfer of  a cavernous, shuttered co-operative department store on Regent Road, a high street in the West End of Morecambe, where there are a lot of empty units. The collective is fundraising to transform the co-op building from an eye-sore into a contemporary community and arts centre, supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs. Beki and Jo have dedicated years of their lives to the day-to-day labour of holding spaces for people in a place statistics deem deprived. Like Catherine in Liverpool, whom we met last week, they start with a the simple, radical idea that redevelopment should start not with what is missing, but what exists in abundance: creativity, incredible buildings and dreams.

Jo interviewed on February 15, 2018

Right now we’re in 13 West Street. We started at number 7. Two and a half years ago we met with a group of artists and makers who wanted to see something different in the area. We thought we were setting up a creative space, like a studio, but when we met with people all they wanted was somewhere to show their work, so we opened number 7 as a gallery and gift shop.

People started coming in and not going home.

It became a bit of a social hub. For a year, we didn’t take any money in commission from sales but people would exchange time - so people would put on workshops, which add to what was available in the area, because there has not been a tremendous amount.

We set this up with a creative head, thinking let’s do something that will give people more experiences and increase pride in the area, because it’s not an area that’s had the best of reputations. That affects people in their core: when they know it is a deprived and run-down area. We wanted to address that and shout about some of the positive things going on.

We got to the point where we weren’t making any money, but we were working with around 50 people on a regular basis and we started being commissioned to do some interesting work for Morecambe Variety Festival.

We needed more space. We were putting tables out on the street!

So we decided that wasn’t sustainable and we needed a separate space for the gallery and gift shop and a place for a community hub. It’s a diverse place and you never know what is going on on a daily basis. 

We ended up creating a bid to use the church opposite. That was made possible by West End Million. These [shop] units are tiny, they are really hard to use for anything practical. The funding enabled us to knock through upstairs and downstairs, so next door is usable, even though it’s really small.

That enabled us to get by with another year on the terrace, which is part of our identity. It’s been a really quiet street with not much happening. It’s perceived as though there is nothing here, so now that’s definitely changing and it will be interesting how that evolves.

At the moment, in the West End, a lot of property is owned by people out of the area.

We’re selling artwork: art is not an essential commodity and if you’re living on the bread line, you’re not going to come here and buy art, the end. So the more we can create a community ownership structure for owning property, the more that we can be recirculating wealth round the area. Potentially the next thing after property is things needed to run businesses, whether that’s printing or creative equipment. That’s probably the next place where we send money out of our economy. 

My background is working with people, I trained as a youth and community worker, I worked with the local authority, trying to get people involved in decision making. I worked in amazing places, but real-world experiences are the best way to get people involved. There are people around here who have never had positive feedback for anything in their life.

I think we need more places with an open door.

Having an open door on the terrace slowed us down. We don’t get much work done in the day, but people come in and feel welcomed and valued.

I’ve never once seen someone come into this venue and not get the help they need, whether it’s a lift, or someone to speak to about their benefits. Sometimes it’s about putting a shelf up at home, but there is a community of people who all care and they are helping people negotiate life’s little hurdles. I think that’s amazing, and to be part of something like that is really humbling.

Interviewed on February 16, 2021

Beki: In July, the cabinet approved a community asset transfer for the Co-op building. We were pushing for a 99-year lease, but it’s looking more like 40. The project fits very well with Lancaster County Council’s plans as they doing some work around community wealth building. They also have agreed £425,000 for the superstructure of the building. 

Obviously, with the pandemic, we had to remodel the business plan.

The concept was to do a phased approach, initially the ground floor and the basement, but the emphasis of that was on room hire, co-working space and cafe. The idea was to expand gradually, like we did on the terrace, but now we’re expanding that to include the first floor sooner than we were expecting, to include private business space, because we’re not going to be able to do as much through coworking with the pandemic. People are going to want private space and there is a need for that. We’re exploring partnerships where certain businesses might come in and take a wider occupation, maybe even the second floor. 

We’re just fundraising at the moment. We’re about half-way towards the £1.2 million. Once you have those initial backers, hopefully other people will want to support it and be a part of it because they are not taking the first step.

Jo: We were able to be a lot more effective through the first lockdown because suddenly we weren’t spending four days a week dealing with a constant stream of people. It’s given us so much more time to focus on things more methodically. 

What we realised is we still don’t really have enough time. We’re supposed to be spending two days a week each focussing on the Co-op building and we have been inducting new staff, maintaining communication – that’s before we even reach out to our community. This week is the first week I feel like the new team are getting on with things and I don’t need to worry. At the same time we’re starting a new project called Morecambe Matters, which isn’t ideal timing, but we’ll get there! 

Beki: I think we always thought we would take on some staff, but we don’t want to grow a big team.

The vision is to create a self-supporting ecosystem of enterprises.

That’s really the direction we want to push them. Currently, we’re running a programme called Make It In Morecambe, which is a funded programme for enterprise support. As Good Things Collective, we want to be supporting creative, collective social enterprises in the area. There are other business support options in the area but our focus is on creative, social and sustainable development.

What needs to change to allow community groups like yours to take on more space on high streets?

Jo: There needs to be more funding to protect community interests in land and buildings that matter, especially now.

This year has been really hard for capital funding.

We need £361,000 before we can do building work on the site. We were ready for that but we’ve not been able to progress – part of that is the pandemic, but it’s also quite intimidating “levelling up” – especially now. 

We’re at the point where we’re going to have to chunk our project into into small pieces. It doesn’t seem logical to do that. You end up going to different funders for different pieces of the pie. It would be so much better if there was one who supported you. Otherwise it means you’re accountable to a lot of different people, which can add a lot of time pressure in addition to doing what you're getting the funding for. 

We literally need £361k now. It’s nothing, really. But there’s a huge, massive gap the size of the grand canyon between the day to day experience of the work we are doing and the money that is needed to do it.

Time is running out for local authorities to have the opportunity to act to protect the built environment.

Their budgets are being cut too, there are local authorities going bust. What happens after that? The local authority has the opportunity to tackle this in the way that no one else has, it also has clear justification in terms of the long term economic impact. We can try as much as we can – we have given five years of our life to this now. But someone else could make it happen in a day - perhaps with very different motivation.

Footnotes

Find out more about the creative projects that power the Good Things Collective on Facebook. This week, there are lots of amazing events at the Breaking Ground festival in Liverpool to launch a regional hub for community-led housing. I am starting to get excited about getting on the road again, now we know UK lockdown is easing from April. Till then, you can support this virtual tour by liking this post, commenting below or forwarding this to someone who might like to join us. Thank you!