Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Lasting legacy is essential for our City of Culture

The real test of the year-long extravaganza will not be how many tourists it attracts but how many come back, says Ruairi O'Kane

At exactly 13 minutes past eight on New Year's Eve, a huge fireworks display on the banks of the Foyle will herald the start of Derry's year as the UK City of Culture 2013.

The pyrotechnics are perhaps an apt method of marking the beginning of the celebrations, which have been dogged by controversy and conflict since the successful bid was made two-and-a-half years ago.

Organisers are now focusing on the programme of events for the next 12 months, but when the dust settles it will be the legacy of the year which will come under the most intense scrutiny.

Expectations have been raised by many in political and civic society, and millions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been pumped into promoting and producing the cultural and arts extravaganza.

Co-ordinators look optimistically to the £800m earned by Liverpool through its year as European City of Culture as an indicator of the potential financial windfall available.

However, strategic sights need to be set beyond 2013 and the City of Culture cannot be isolated as the only show in town as an economic driver for regeneration in the North West.

The purpose of the City of Culture designation is, according to the body established to oversee it, to accelerate the change in Derry's fortunes by driving a step-change in the economy through tourism and creative media sectors.

Projections have been made of up to a million visitors to the region as a result.

The key to legacy-making will be to not only ensure they spend money, but that they come back.

The programme of events released earlier this year ticks all the boxes as far as culture vultures are concerned, although elements of the schedule are somewhat more BBC4 than ITV1 for some tastes.

Attractions include Royal Ballet and Status Quo.

As a result, those behind the extravagant arts spectacle have fallen between two stools - appeasing the over-anxious homegrown audience and attracting luvvies from beyond these shores.

Inspiring and harnessing local support was key to the acclaimed bid which secured the title.

But momentum was lost in the intervening period as efforts shifted towards promoting the city to an external market.

Reinvigorating and reigniting local passions is essential for ensuring a lasting legacy.

Because it is arguable that the Turner Prize, Lumiere light-show and Fleadh Cheoil na h Eireann aside, there are few other events that, had the City of Culture gone elsewhere, we would be flocking to attend.

With the countdown to the launch under way, City of Culture's presence remains subtle, rather than substantial and those who claim a palpable sense of excitement are in the minority.

Tellingly, the City of Culture Company is the only tenant of the revamped Ebrington Square development and, more importantly, the impressive arena erected for events is, sadly, temporary.

Instead, Derry requires permanent economic drivers to arise out of and alongside the City of Culture year with the direct help and support of government.

With the talent and experience onboard, the Culture Company will, undoubtedly, put on a fantastic, year-long celebration of the city and its artistic heritage.

It is unfair to expect them to shoulder the entire burden for regeneration, therefore central and local government must step up.

The recent census revealed 11% of Derry households contain dependent children and no adults in employment - the highest in the north.

Derry's youth unemployment figures represent almost 10% of the entire Northern Ireland total and young people in the North West are twice as likely to be out of work as their counterparts elsewhere in the region.

As far as legacies go, these young people need more than access to a musical instrument.

The multiplier effect from the City of Culture enterprise needs to underpin, not undermine, Derry firms by providing sustainable employment opportunities.

Experience to date has seen money invested in the city depart as quickly as it arrived, with local businesses losing out to competitors from elsewhere in tendering processes - including City of Culture contracts.

Figures released by the Department of Finance and Personnel show only 13% of companies in the Foyle constituency which express an interest in Government contracts are ultimately successful in gaining them and this needs to change.

The city's historical infrastructural problems must also be addressed. International flights into Derry are limited and, should visitors arrive via Belfast or Dublin, they will find an embarrassing train service from one and no direct service from the other.

The journey by road is even less appealing to a city named by the Lonely Planet guide as the fourth best in the world.

All this is further evidence why government and its agencies must support investment initiatives alongside the City of Culture.

The One Plan, Derry's vision for economic regeneration, is part of the Programme for Government (PfG) and must be pursued vigorously.

The quest to expand the Magee campus of the University of Ulster needs to be taken seriously. It is not good enough to allocate student places elsewhere when only one institution is bidding for them and has presented a business case for them.

The City of Culture aims to showcase Derry's vibrant future to the world. But, as stories go, it is only the prologue.

The next chapter will begin a year from now.

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