Is Wrexham still a shithole?

The town that turned

Six years ago, I wrote an article called Wrexham, what a shithole. It got a bit of attention.

Six short years on, I want to take a look at that, and ask: is Wrexham still a shithole?

You can read the original article here, but the premise was that I was sick of people talking down Wrexham and feeling like they couldn’t do anything about it.

There was nothing too controversial in the post, but there was something about that word shithole that resonated, not just in Wrexham but for people from towns like Wrexham all over the UK.

The UK Government’s Levelling Up agenda places this idea at the heart of its mission to help “left behind” towns (uch).

But Wrexham has already changed massively since we got together as a group to discuss this and look at what we could do to both turn things around and shine a light on the good work that was already happening.

Of course, we didn’t really do that much ourselves — but it has been amazing to see the momentum build and so much good stuff now going on.

I asked the community in the Wrexham Town Matters Facebook Group for their views on what has happened in the last six years to make them feel more proud and excited, here are some of the big developments that are changing the face of the town*.

Wrexham AFC’s new ownership

This was not an anticipated turn of events, and I don’t think any grand masterplan or strategy could have attracted something like this. September 2020 brought the shock news that Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds had bid to buy the football club.

I wrote separately about why they bought the club, so won’t go into that too much.

For me personally, as a football fan whose favourite show is Always Sunny, it really was unbelievable. There was a day on Twitter last year where people were speculating whether Danny DeVito was in the Turf and there was a genuine chance that it could have been him.

Ryan Reynolds has even threatened to go to Chequers on a night out, though I don’t know if that’s a good idea.

There’s been a lot of excitement caused by the action on the pitch, but this week the documentary goes live and nobody knows how that will be received.

Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney creating memorable moments for young supporters

The marketing has been wild, people have been tweeting pictures from LAX of giant billboards saying Welcome to Wrexham, yellow taxis in Times Square, and bus stops all over the world.

So there’s a lot of hope pinned on the success of the TV show, and how it will reflect the reality of Wrexham as a town. The new owners have managed to get most big decisions right in the last two years, everything from kits, to speeding up the building of the new kop, retaking ownership of the ground, and making some signings that have captured hearts and minds. They’ve donated to many local causes in creative ways, and created an impression that they really “get” Wrexham.

But if it’s too patronising — all of the promo has been about the football club in a blue-collar town — or if the show gets cancelled, what happens then?

Luckily, and despite a mixed start to the season, there’s still a lot of hope and local pride that Wrexham is the name on everyone’s lips.

Wrexham is on the map.

The interesting thing here is that although I think the club ownership has obviously had a massive, massive influence on things, the tide was already turning. And we have some proof.

Wrexham Enterprise Hub

Luckily, without knowing what was to come in the September, in 2020 we did a mini impact report on the first couple of years of the Enterprise Hub and one of the things that came up time and time again was that people felt more proud to be from Wrexham.

Pride of where you’re from is one of those abstract ideas, but it was a really important part of things.

We opened the hub 18 months after the Wrexham is a Shithole post was published, but I’m not going to talk much about the hub — just the findings of the report.

Members said they felt they had people they could trust, they said they felt more connected to the community in Wrexham, they said they felt like they were not judged for their accent or how they dressed. These are important things in building community.

It’s been a platform for a lot of good stuff, but the most important lesson for us is that it is a part of a bigger puzzle, with no single piece responsible for creating the overall success.

Tŷ Pawb

This was the big unknown at the time — would Tŷ Pawb be a spectacular failure or total disaster?

I think it’s safe to say it has been a massive success so far. Aside from national recognition in being in the final five for the Art Fund Museum of the Year award, it has created a great place to eat, take kids during the holidays, and access art in a really inclusive way.

Islet at Focus Wales 2019 in Tŷ Pawb

If you’re there for Focus Wales it really comes into its own — my personal highlight was when I bumped into the previous MP who informed me that he just enjoyed seeing Peaness in one of the rooms.

More than this, it has created a space for entrepreneurs to experiment and get going. Wrexham Trainer Revival has already built a legendary following, Curry-on-the-Go is a great place to get a good lunch, and Liam Stokes-Massey in the Shepherd’s Hut is an inspiration for any young artists passing by who want to make a living as an illustrator.

There have been all of the ups and downs that you’d expect from any start-up, but Tŷ Pawb is riding a wave of positivity right now which shows no sign of abating.

*City Status

The declaration that Wrexham had been awarded city status after decades of campaigning was initially greeted with a mixed reception, but since then it feels like it has been embraced.

There were eight towns given city status as part of the 2022 Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

In 2002, Wrexham missed out to Newport, but despite missing out again in 2012 managed to secure the accolade earlier this year.

Even in this article there’s still a lot of interchanging of town and city, as everyone gets used to it, and it might take decades to know for sure if it is a positive development.

Wrexham also made the final four shortlist for the 2025 City of Culture, from 20+ initial applicants. The team effort to pull together the bid, the tours for judges, and diversity of ideas and projects involved was a really inspiring thing to see. It was another one of those moments of seeing a community at its best — it was really inspirational stuff. The hope now is that the momentum can be maintained and the plans can go ahead one way or another.

High Street

A big thing from the original post was how abandoned the town centre was looking. The old Hope St/Regent St high street had become a ghost town, with stacks of empty shops. Henblas Square was completely empty, and areas like Lord St and Queens Sq were largely vacant.

Since then, and against all odds, the town centre has come back to life. Community businesses like YaB Hub and the relocation of Xplore Science to Henblas Square has reignited a vital part of town.

Henblas Square, from empty units to Yellow and Blue, Groundworks North Wales and Xplore!

The council has acquired the Hippodrome site — such an important site for people in town who have had such fond memories ruined by the state of disrepair that the site has been allowed to fall into.

This is what it means when we talk about places being “left behind”.

The Hippodrome was a beautiful old cinema which we all saw our first films in, which harkened back to the days of full curtain raising before the film was shown, intervals for ice creams and all of the rest of it. Our precious, precious memories had been disregarded for generations since it was closed after 89 years in 1998.

This summer, it’s been turfed over to create a meeting space for citizens young and old.

The key image from the last story was of the sad and abandoned old Burton’s store — this has been redeveloped into Hope Street Church — a stunningly impressive reimagining of what a church could look like in a modern community, right opposite one of the oldest tourist attractions in town, St Giles Church.

St Giles Church and Hope Street Church — different generations’ approaches to faith centres

The very 1960s looking Crown Buildings have had a major makeover which not only looks much better but has also shifted its energy performance from a D to an A, good for now and for future generations.

The new Hafod building at Coleg Cambria connects further and higher education and offers a lot of routes for skills development which is matched to the modern economy.

Independent businesses like Geckos (who have grown into a larger unit) and 4th Planet Games are much loved by loyal customers and Calon FM have moved to the town centre at the Enterprise Hub.

Wrexham Clothing Exchange, Refurbs, and Repair Cafe Wrecsam have become vital parts of the green movement, creating ways to access goods that would otherwise unnecessarily go to landfill.

And simple things like bins being repainted, the public space at the old Hippodrome site, the Queen Street market going from strength to strength, the number of weekend street performances — these things are sacred, they show the town still has a beating heart.

Food, drink and music

New and old places

There are so many great new and established places to go for food or a pint in town. Craft breweries, independent bars, and restaurants, there’s the variety that’s been needed for years.

Locally-owned chains like the Fat Boar are growing. The Cambrian Vaults has reopened as the Parish and the same owners have also launched Craft & Tails and taken over Central Station — a vital live music venue which launched last week as the Rockin’ Chair with a sell-out the Royston Club gig.

The Drunk Monk is a wonderful small craft beer specialist in the Overton Arcade, the Magic Dragon Brewery has a taproom on Charles St and popular brewery site just out of town.

Levant Wrexham, Lisbon Tapas, Iâl restaurant at Coleg Cambria are bringing great dining options to town.

Lord Street is bustling with people spilling out of Vasco Da Gama and Heaven Coffee Shop, Charles Street has Igam Ogam and To^st.

Relaunching in 2021 — Wrexham Feast is now a social enterprise which hosts over 6,000 people at the end of September for a massive food and drink festival.

Saith Seren was open back in 2018 but is still a really excellent venue for the town centre, and folks like Andy and Phil at Bank St Social have become a social institution.

William Aston Hall has been saved through an innovative partnership between Theatr Clwyd and Glyndŵr University.

The Wrexham Lager craft brewery has turned into a serious machine, and this year were finally able to put the classic logo back on the multi-award winning bottles.

Now everyone who was raised in the 90s is just waiting for the day where they can outbid TikTok for the privilege of being on the football shirts.

Music and the arts

Focus Wales is going from strength to strength. The latest event had a big marquee on Llwyn Isaf which created a totally different vibe, hosting outstanding acts like Self Esteem, Pip Blom, and Echo & the Bunnymen.

The incredible Self Esteem at Focus Wales 2022

It’s estimated that Focus Wales generates over £1m per year in economic value for the town centre through the three-day annual festival — and creates significant opportunity for local musicians and music industry professionals.

The arts scene is flourishing, Tŷ Cornel is the newly relocated Undegun Arts, and the Drawing Board, Periclo, Wrexham Sounds are creating space and support for artists and musicians across Wrexham.

Future things and growing, local businesses

There’s still more to come, notably: Chapter Court on Queens Square — a new food and retail space for pop-ups and start-ups; a £2m investment into refurbing the Butchers and General Markets; the £25m Wrexham gateway project to develop a transport hub — including offices, retail, and housing; the new kop at the Racecourse; and the proposed national football museum.

Local businesses are growing from strength and continuing to make waves: Moneypenny have just secured Great Place to Work accreditation, are acquiring companies in the US to reach new markets, and now have 950 members of staff in Wrexham; Net World Sports are continuing their astronomic growth and enabling people to engage with sports; Chetwood Financial had over 100 members of staff and have issued almost £200m in loans to customers according to their latest filed accounts; Village Bakery has bounced back from a devastating factory fire to rebuild a new bakery four times the size which will create 100 new jobs, encompasses an innovation centre and led to the M&S CEO declaring it one of the finest bakeries in the world; Development Bank of Wales have continued to invest in micro and small business across the region since establishing their Wrexham HQ.

“We are business built by the people of Wrexham for the people of Wrexham. Wrexham is a place on the up. We are locked and loaded to bring prosperity and opportunity to the people of Wrexham. No longer will it be a place where people leave, it’s going to be a place where people come, simple as that.”

Alex Lovén, Net World Sports

Avow continue to support community projects across Wrexham through connecting volunteers to good causes, and the Venture has an “international reputation as a beacon of best practice in the provision of children’s play”.

Of course there’s still more to do, there always will be. But I think there is now more of a sense of building something together, and believing it can be done. Eagles Meadow has had a number of major hits in the last six years — perhaps most clearly felt by the departure of Debenhams. But retail is changing, and rather than bemoaning these changes we can look at the opportunities for Wrexham to be seen as a testbed for new ideas.

Can we use these spaces for community use — like the excellent Wrexham Clothing Exchange? Can we create housing in these former retail spaces — like the incredibly popular Ty Henblas Apartments? Can we build on the entertainment uses at Eagles Meadow — making it the go-to place for families and young people in the evenings?

So, no — Wrexham still isn’t a shithole, in fact it’s a rather awesome growing city with a lot to see and do.

If you haven’t been for a visit, make sure you do soon.

I want to say a big thanks to many in Wrexham who’ve supported this article, but mostly to Dave Gray, Carl Turner, and Mike Corcoran who’ve gone way above and beyond.

Original post:

https://garethijones.medium.com/wrexham-what-a-shithole-67c30ffa2aad

One final shout out: when I asked the question in the Wrexham Town Matters group there was one person who was praised more than anyone else, so here’s credit where it’s due to Denzil Pemberton!

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Gareth I. Jones

Gareth I. Jones

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Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.