Thursday, 12 April 2012

Unity Hall: Once In A Lifetime

It perhaps says something about my mentality when I tell you that, as a youngster, I dreamt of winning the lottery and buying that old mill building that used to sit down by the river, out past Chantry Chapel bridge. Surrounded by huge empty brick buildings it had the kind of post industrial romance that is perhaps more equated with Manchester and its ‘90s redevelopment. It’d be an ace rehearsal space by day and an awesome venue by night and would be somewhere for friends to get together and hang out. And because I’d funded it through a lottery win, it wouldn’t matter if the books balanced. It’d be legendary.

The first problem with this dream was that I didn’t play the lottery. Paradoxically (and naively) I feared a lottery win would ‘ruin my life’ as I would never appreciate the value of things and people would not take me seriously. That soon changes once you get a job, doesn’t it?

The second problem was more practical; the building was bought up as part of a redevelopment of luxury flats. It’s still there, just along from The Hepworth. And it is still empty as plans to turn it into a fancy restaurant have fallen by the wayside in the current economic climate.

I then began dreaming of buying the building that was once Players Snooker Club, a legendary venue that later became Cube, then Zone and now lays empty. I would run it as a collective with other music lovers and we’d create an inclusive, friendly place for all Wakefield musicians to meet and collaborate and dream yet more. But really, would that ever happen?

Well, in a funny sort of way, perhaps.

Unity House, the huge, long derelict building in the very centre of Wakefield stands before me. Chris Hill, of a company called Shine, is conducting a tour of the legendary venue. I’ve never been inside before. Many in our tour group will have. Stories of this place are part of the fabric of Wakefield history. But that is all it has ever been to me. Now, it is real.

We ascend a few flights of metal stairs and appear in Unity Hall itself, a vast space that is the main source of this buildings legend. It is hard to believe such a large venue exists in the centre of Wakefield. The floor space, of bent and humped floorboards, is a very healthy size. An old bar of torn and stripped ‘70s d├ęcor still stands at one end. At the other, the stage itself, which has been host to so many great bands of the punk and post punk era. Light filters in through stained glass. From atop the old balcony I catch a glimpse over Wakefield and am startled to see my city from this unknown angle. Three ornate towers stretch into the distance before me; Wakefield Theatre Royal, then Westgate Chapel. If it wasn’t for the fact that the third was actually Wakefield prison, I would say this was a most cultured scene indeed.

Watching us all scurry around like excited children is Chris Hill, stood centre, patiently letting us take it all in. Earlier in the week he hosted an event at The Orangery, just over the road, to launch the scheme to get the public involved in Unity Hall’s great comeback. Time and time again, a group or business has looked at Unity Hall and seen the obvious potential but it has never come close to fruition. But the plans put forward at the meeting are not only the most promising, but are also the best.

Chris works for a company called Shine, based in Leeds, who have a track record with this sort of thing. Like many people, he hadn’t visited Wakefield so much over the years but admits after just a few months working on this project that “I've fallen in love with Wakefield. It’s a really beautiful place.” He believes that Unity Hall gives Wakefield a genuine chance to go “head to head with Leeds.”

So what’s that plan? Well, essentially, Shine has been trying to secure a load of financial backing from various sources; lottery funds, Arts Council, European sources and Wakefield Council to purchase and renovate the building. But the exciting thing is this; they aren’t a business or a corporation. They are offering control of this building to the citizens of Wakefield. Me and you. Of course, it will have to work as a business, but it means this is a huge opportunity for this building to be used to benefit the people of Wakefield directly through its use as an Arts Space, a Music Venue, Retail Units, Business Space, Conference Suites, Theatre Space and, well, it’s up to us at the end of the day.

The tour continues into a small side room from the main hall. Space enough for another bar and small stage. From here, out of the ornate windows, I can see Westgate itself. The tacky, cheerless bars un-neoned in the afternoon; one takeaway is optimistically open, serving kebabs to shoppers and drifters. It’s like I’m watching through the looking glass. Another world at my fingertips. This place is in another class. Rather than letting all that stuff outside drag the city down, Unity Hall can drag the city back up once more.

“I've seen Wakefield come up and go down. The city needs development. Westgate needs a kick up the backside. Unity Hall is the absolute pinnacle of what needs to happen.” So say, Murray Edwards, head of Wakefield Theatre and Board Member on this grand project. The launch sees a procession of speakers give a different take on why we need Unity Hall. John Godber, now in residence at the theatre adds “You have to look after artists or they leg it.”

He makes a hugely important point about Arts bodies working together and how he sees Unity Hall facilitating this. He refers to Silo Thinking, which he witnessed in Hull before his move to Wakefield wherein Arts Organisations keep themselves to themselves and end up fighting over limited funding for their projects. A collective running Unity Hall would enable all areas of the arts to come together and work as one. The building itself can end up being central to a vast hub of smaller Arts organisations working as one. From my experience, this is exactly what we need to do in Wakefield. Not only will Unity Hall be a home for these different arms of the arts, it can also teach us to work together.

The tour continues and very quickly I become disorientated. It’s a vast, confusing place. The lights mostly don’t work. Old chairs lied scattered in hallways. Fifty year old radiators cling to the walls. Open, empty fuse boxes and peeling paint hang to the walls. I can’t dispel the notion of a post apocalyptic computer game – or better still, one where you find yourself in a long abandoned, slightly creepy location. Where something has gone horribly wrong. Add a couple of flickering strip lights and the distant groan of some unseen foe and I’d be pretty bloody terrified.

But I love the history on show here. A beautiful panelled fireplace. Stained glass windows with the image of the beehive worked in; an important symbol of the co-operative that first built this structure back in the 19th century. Some of the walls are ugly 1960s plaster but holes reveal the delicate original tiling hidden behind. Peel away the surface and there is something beautiful there, waiting to be found.

These additional areas are key to the commercial aspect of Unity Hall. A spokesman for a local digital media company explains how something like Unity Hall can help build a community for his particular line of work. He had dreamed of creating such a thing but was saddened to see the majority of designers move to Leeds or be forced to set up shop in the soul destroying identikit buildings of various motorways business parks.

Wakefield Council's Head of Economic Growth was also there to offer support stating that developments such as this “need to happen in this economic climate. Wakefield is already getting national and international reputation as a centre of Arts and we need to build on this.”

Which all sounds fine and dandy. But what needs to be done? Well, for the large scale funding to work, it needs to be shown that it has public support. If that can be done, money will be put into Unity Hall and the project will begin. Within 18 months we could have an 800 capacity music venue, the envy of the north, if not the country.

But that term ‘support’ needs clarifying. I’m sure most people would say, “Hey, yeah, that sounds really cool” and happily let everyone else do the work. This is a co-operative; it’s a bit different and involves an initial leap of faith. The scheme requires people to buy shares. Not like the stock exchange; there’s no money to be made here. Instead, ‘support’ means a minimum purchase of 200 shares for £200. For that you become a paid up member and part of the collective that runs Unity Hall.

I feel like a shady business man that has just dropped the bombshell after the big spiel. But don’t look at it like that. £200 as a one-off payment might seem big. But look at it another way. It’s a lifetime’s involvement in what could potentially be the greatest thing to happen in Wakefield ever. It’s like you owning a part of The Hepworth or Yorkshire Sculpture Park for £200. And you will be involved with how it is run and what it is used for.

This is the biggy: the advantage of the co-operative method is that Unity Hall will be government invested, but not government funded. It will be ours to run as we see fit. Eventually even Chris and Shine will edge their way out, leaving a committee of passionate Wakefieldians in charge. How amazing is that?

But I have to be clear here; simply thinking it is a great idea and not acting is useless. It needs practical, actual support or once again an opportunity to make something amazing happen in Wakefield may be wasted. If money really is a problem, get creative. Are you in a band? How about split it four ways? Fifty pounds each, one members name on the official document. Maybe you can spread it over a couple of paydays. Sell that stuff on eBay you’ve been meaning to get rid of for a while. Have a spring clean. This’ll be the best £200 you ever spend.

Ultimately, it is down to positivity. And I think people in Wakefield can struggle with that. Even the pro-active ones can sometimes doubt the point of all this. I know I certainly do. But, having made this very leap myself and handed over the money, I can tell you it feels great. I have invested financially, but I also have made an emotional investment too, and that gives me a great sense of hope and growing pride. That’s a great feeling and I highly recommend you give it serious consideration.

Much more information of a more practical nature can be found on the Unity Hall Website. Please, head over and take a look. Let’s make this happen.

Dean Freeman

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