West Kilbride - Craft Town Scotland
Craft Town Scotland
On a sunny day in West Kilbride from a vantage point on the main street of ‘the village’, the sunlight glints off undulating rooftops accentuating the unique topography of this small rural town in North Ayrshire. A varied mix of independent retail shops, local service businesses and residential properties exist side by side, interwoven green spaces enhance the desirability of living and working in West Kilbride’s town centre.
Visiting the town’s main street 14 years earlier, you would have found it almost impossible to believe this was the same place. That the depressing line of 21 boarded up shops and the unkempt town centre before you could have survived, let alone serve the needs of the community, would have seemed an impossible feat.
A hint of what led to this remarkable transformation is to be found in the many craft studios currently punctuating the main street. The full scale of what has been achieved in West Kilbride becomes clear as you reach the end of the street. The Barony Centre is a £1.6m conversion of a community owned ‘C’ listed church building. Transformed into a craft exhibition, education and events venue, this project has, by marrying the existing 19th Century building with contemporary interventions, created a landmark building for the town and the county.
West Kilbride’s population had remained relatively stable for several decades, with between 4,500 to just below 5,000 residents. One of North Ayrshire’s more affluent communities, it had not been immune from the changing patterns of modern life, with the rise of out of town shopping centres and the onward march of large supermarket chains.
By 1996, the area suffered from lack of investment by the public sector and the loss of large-scale private employers. There was a palpable sense of despondency surrounding the future; a local tragedy, the murder of a local girl, provided the catalyst for action. A public meeting convened by the local MSP resulted in the formation of a volunteer led community group whose remit was to halt the decline.
All agreed the future lay not in competing with supermarkets but in providing a unique selling point for the town. Located on Ayrshire’s scenic coast, a growing emphasis on tourism encouraged the group to develop a ‘theme town’ approach. After a community commissioned feasibility study identified a countrywide lack of studio provision for artists, it was decided that West Kilbride’s USP would be the creation of Scotland’s first Craft and Design Town, now known as Craft Town Scotland.
In order to drive this, the West Kilbride Community Initiative Limited (WKCIL) was formed as a registered charity in 1998. By providing affordable studio space to professional makers, open to the public throughout the year, WKCIL aimed to create a focus for craft and design. By exploiting niche retailing and tourism, the group also wished to encourage the setting up of new businesses and increased visitors to the town.
Having established The WK Initiative Centre, a volunteer managed outlet for amateur craft, the immediate priority for WKCIL was to develop good quality studios and attract professional makers to the town. From the outset gaining support for their idea proved extremely difficult, approaches to North Ayrshire Council, Scottish Enterprise Ayrshire and the Scottish Arts Council were received with little enthusiasm and no tangible support.
Two subsequent studies were commissioned by NAC and SEA, neither of which found grounds for optimism. A recommendation that the project should grow organically with no financial support from the public purse was an early set back to WKCIL’s ambitious plans. In what was to become a hallmark of the community’s tenacity, WKCIL remained undaunted. Between 1998 and 2001, though not much progress was made in terms of acquiring studio space, WKCIL established an Environmental Group which subsequently purchased a disused quarry and two meadows; had its ambitions recognised by the Scottish Parliament; purchased the old Barony Church and took on the lease of the NAC owned Village Hall earmarked for closure.
After an approach was made to The Moffat Charitable Trust, the first two studios were purchased and refurbished in 2001, with WKCIL paying a peppercorn rent and sub-letting the studios to makers. WKCIL quickly recognised that specialist knowledge was required in order that the craft and design initiative be fully developed as a cultural and tourist attraction. After a re-appraisal of the project in 2002, Scottish Enterprise Ayrshire agreed to contribute £115,000 over 4 years as 50% match funding to enable:
- The employment of a Craft Development Officer
- The purchase and redevelopment of craft studios
- Advertising and promotional activities
The community took an entrepreneurial approach to raising the necessary match funding; a one off furniture auction of donated goods developed into weekly furniture sales which took place in the old Barony Church and raised up to £28K per annum, additional studio units were purchased and an empty corner property on the main street was redeveloped as a contemporary craft exhibition gallery.
In the intervening decade, Craft Town Scotland has been recognised by several national awards as an exemplar of enterprise and the driver of the town’s economic regeneration. There are nine studios operating under the Craft Town Scotland banner with three other associated craft businesses within the town. Makers range from those just starting out to those with an international reputation.
WKCIL’s drive and determination is typified in its successful campaign to identify a fitting use for the old Barony Church, raise the necessary funds to see the plan become a reality and witness the acclaimed launch of The Barony Centre in May of this year (2012). The centre is already staking its claim as one of the regions cultural attractions; it is the only Scottish venue to host the Crafts Council touring exhibition ‘Lab Craft: Digital adventures in contemporary craft.’
Despite the many setbacks, local people have led the way – the town’s latest accolade, as the winner of a Year of Creative Scotland Creative Places Award 2012, shows that creativity and ingenuity can be nurtured in small, rural communities as well as in large, urban centres.
The Barony Centre has been developed over a five year period and has been made possible by the following grant awards:
GCA Big Lottery Fund Scotland £1,028,072
Town Centre Regeneration Fund £ 296,290
Ayrshire LEADER £ 266,634
Third Sector Enterprise Fund £ 95,000
The Robertson Trust £ 60,000
North Ayrshire Council Landfill Communities Fund £ 25,000
Nuclear Decommissioning Authority £ 11,000
Maggie M Broadley is Director of Craft Town Scotland
Image: Craft Studios/Main Street, West Kilbride. Credit: IKAT