Last week, I spent a bit of time in the town I was born, Wrexham, with a bunch of people who are helping to create a new identity for the town as a vibrant and creative capital of north Wales.
Late last year, I came up for a meal to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and we decided to go get some drinks afterwards. Visiting a few of the old haunts was great, but what really wound me up was how many groups of people I overheard calling Wrexham a “shithole”. And it was always that word too.
By the time I heard the fifth group, I started to call people out on it, and ask why they thought that.
Wrexham has changed a lot in the nine years since I did what many others have, and made my way south to Cardiff. I love the city of Cardiff, and the work we have done in Caerphilly to support another great Welsh town to find an identity as a home to new businesses, but Wrexham is not recognisable from the town I worked in.
The town centre has moved, and there are now two town centres, leaving the former centre of Regent Street/Hope Street as a shadow of its former self. Companies like Woolworths and BHS have left gaping holes in the high street, and the relocation of anchors like Next and Marks & Spencer to Eagles Meadow have taken more familiar companies to the fringes of the town — a decision and initiative that I believe was correctly taken by Wrexham County Borough Council.
This has led to a significant number of value shops, and temporary traders taking over the old town centre. For anyone passing through, it doesn’t have the charm of Chester, or Usk, the independents of Crickhowell, or the foody scene of Canton, it just looks like an abandoned shell of a former regional hub.
Getting together with people like Dave Gray, Will Dean, Adam Davies, and Mike Corcoran, helped to show me that there are people with a vision for how the town could be, but that we need to work together with more might than ever before. And we need to shelf any cynicism that may have ruled before.
One thing is clear, this isn’t a rescue mission. There are plenty of talented individuals with great ideas for how the town can thrive. This is more of a call to action.
In light of Brexit, economic growth is going to need a bit more imagination than the previous approach of bringing international companies in to create hundreds of jobs in one go. Inward investment as we know it will be on stop while companies looking to relocate to the UK wait to see what the trading agreements with the rest of the world will look like.
The 18,000+ students across the college and university in Wrexham are entering a new economy, and one which is even more unpredictable than the one that has left 40% of young people ‘always’ or ‘often’ feeling depressed, according to the Prince’s Trust Macquarie, Youth Index.
What helps here is that Glyndwr University have recently appointed a vice-chancellor who gets the importance of enterprise. Dr Maria Hinfelaar has emphasised to staff that it is a big priority in the next chapter of the institution’s future.
The economy isn’t quite so accessible these days for anyone, it is way too complicated to just expect people to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and get to it. Careers advisors can’t advise what paths people should take when they don’t know what the working world will look like in a decade.
Thinking about what to do, as a group we decided it is time to try to bring these opportunities to people in Wrexham who want to achieve great things.
Together, we need to create a space where people learn a new range of skills to prepare them for those jobs: tenacity, resilience, creativity, initiative. And a space where they can come together with like-minded people to think up new answers to questions that the world is asking.
· What will houses look like in 20 years?
· How will the next generation get around regions?
· What technology could be used in large towns like Wrexham to better inform emergency services, or town planners?
· What practices can really make an impact on the increased use of anti-depressants in the western world?
· What will smart devices look like post-smartphone?
· What are we going to do about the fragile care sector in Wales?
This space won’t be a coworking space, it won’t be a learning space, it won’t be a gallery space, or an accelerator, but it will act as all of these things, bringing people together to learn, and develop ideas, to bring an attitude of prosperity and activism to problems that we all see and feel.
We want to start a movement to bring life back to the traditional high street, by filling empty spaces with home-grown new start businesses.
It won’t exist just to create jobs, but it will exist to create an environment where people become more productive, and feel like they are spending their working week doing something meaningful, and worthwhile. Jobs that mean more than waiting for 5pm on Friday afternoon.
The First Minister made a commitment in the Labour manifesto this year to replicate the success seen at hubs like ours in Caerphilly, and that of TechHub in Swansea. If we are going to create a space, it has to be a space for Wrexham, not just a lazy attempt to franchise what works in other parts of the country. To do that, we need people of Wrexham to help us design it.
I believe that Wrexham has all the talent needed to thrive in the modern economy, but we need to bring more people into it, and support more people to feel like they stand to gain from the new opportunities.
If you’re up for the fight, give me a shout. We need you now.
Wrexham isn’t a shithole, and we can prove it.