Jean Ball MIPM was City Centre Manager in Stoke-on-Trent back in 2007 when she was amongst the first coterie to qualify for Membership of the IPM. After an early career in retail Jean got involved in the arts and events industry delivering a diverse array of conferences, exhibitions, performances and spectacles in places ranging from a converted barn in rural Cheshire to Madison Square Gardens in New York. More recently, after over ten years in operational town and city centre management, Jean now works across the UK supporting places, people and organisations to achieve their potential.
Jean Ball, you supported the establishment of Buxton Markets CIC to revitalise the twice weekly traditional market. Can you share with us your insights from that experience?
Jean Ball: Despite having a Market Charter that dates back to the 1600s or earlier, the traditional twice weekly outdoor market in Buxton, Derbyshire, my home town, had gradually fallen fallow over a period of years. The handful of stalwart traders who continued to turn up each week received no support from the local authority who simply took the rent. The nearby bricks & mortar businesses bemoaned the loss and retail vacancy rates were climbing. In 2015, following a successful tender, Buxton Town Team secured the license from the Borough Council to operate the market and a small grant from the County Council to fund the purchase of stalls.
“Like so many things it is harder than it looks, takes perseverance, a range of skills, and enthusiasm to create and sustain a successful commercial venture.”
So, a plan went into action and with untold voluntary hours supporting an employed part time team of two (plus stalls crew) the all new Buxton Markets CIC started operating in April 2016. The new structure is literally owned by the local community who contributed financially to setting the company up, and this is reflected in the turn out of local people visiting and shopping at the market. Like so many things it is harder than it looks, takes perseverance, a range of skills, and enthusiasm to create and sustain a successful commercial venture. Now, nearly a year on, the Tuesday markets are well established and are emerging from the winter lull in great shape. The Saturdays are a little tougher, there are so many options on a Saturday for Traders that it will take another spring to autumn season to build this to match the weekday numbers. The Company is roughly breaking even and feedback from traders, nearby businesses and the public are generally positive. It is amazing what a small group of passionate amateurs can do when they set their mind to it and get their community behind them. An end of year one report will soon be available via the website http://www.buxtonmarkets.co.uk/
In the wake of the Portas Review of the High Street you were a Town Team Advisor to over 40 places across the Midlands. What do you think was achieved through that programme, and what support would you advise policy makers to offer localities in the future?
Jean Ball: I think that there is great power in collaborative grass roots place making, but it does not happen unaided. The Portas Town Teams programme was a fascinating adventure that achieved a great deal in some places, and very little in others. Where local people, empowered by a supportive local authority, businesses and third sector organisations came together around a shared vision great things happened. Where one group or a few keen individuals tried to forge a new path without agreeing a vision and getting a sufficiently broad base around them, at best the benefits were short lived. With appropriate ongoing support (not necessarily money) more places could have developed sustainable entities to take their places into a positive shared future.
“Where local people, empowered by a supportive local authority, businesses and third sector organisations came together around a shared vision great things happened.”
Place Making is a long game and two years was not long enough to establish the structures and skills at the local level to sustain the value into the future. Unfortunately, like so many good programmes, the funding was not renewed and for some the momentum was lost.
You are a development consultant to Wild in Art who create up to high profile mass participation public art events using sculpture trails that drive up perceptions, footfall, dwell time and community engagement. What are these events and how have they been successful?
Jean Ball: I love working with Wild in Art and the Event Partners who work with us to create location specific unique public art trails that attract visitors from far and wide, turn residents into tourists in their own town, raise the profile of the place and lots of smiles. With experience of delivering sculpture trails worldwide, the Wild in Art team create game changing cultural events that are loved by all ages, funded by the private sector, raised over £10Million for charities in the last 10 years, provided roughly 2500 artists (so far) with paid commissions, and introduced countless people to the joy of visual arts in the public realm.
“It is amazing what a small group of passionate amateurs can do when they set their mind to it and get their community behind them.”
As well as supporting the company to develop and grow over the past 4 years, I also look after two or three events in the UK each year. Each event is usually based on a single sculpture shape. For example the Pride of Paisley saw 25 large Lions, each decorated by a different local artist, displayed around the town centre for 11 weeks over the summer of 2016. The large sculptures are supplemented by smaller versions decorated by local school children. After the display period the large sculptures are auctioned for charity with some individual sculptures selling for over £50,000, and the small ones are returned to the schools as a permanent legacy.
These events achieve great results for all the partners involved, develop relationships, celebrate locality, engage communities, and turn the public realm into an open air 3D art gallery for a few months. What’s not to love?
You have been involved in the Buxton Festival for several years now. What is the festival about and what does your work involve?
Jean Ball: Buxton Festival is an opera, classical music and literary festival in July each year that attracts an international audience, prominent artists, musicians and speakers to the lovely Georgian Spa town of Buxton in the Peak District. The Festival makes a huge difference to the economy of the town, to the prestige of the Opera House, and to the community through outreach projects including the Kaleidoscope Choir which I enjoy singing in throughout the year. The town boasts an enviable calendar of events which the Festival sits at the centre of and without which the accommodation providers, restaurants, cafes, and retailers would struggle to survive.
“The Festival makes a huge difference to the economy of the town, to the prestige of the Opera House, and to the community through outreach projects including the Kaleidoscope Choir which I enjoy singing in throughout the year.”
I worked for Buxton Festival for 7 years before becoming Buxton Town Centre Coordinator in 2002. I continued to support the Festival through that role (until 2005) and remained associated until 2014 when I was asked to take on an operational role again (freelance). I now manage two of the 5 venues used by the Festival each year and, with a team of fabulous volunteers, will look after 43 different performances over 15 days this July.
Between 2005 and 2012 you were City Centre Manager in Stoke-on-Trent. Looking back at that experience today, how can you assess it? What do you think you learned from it, and what recommendations would you give your younger self if you were to start over?
Jean Ball: Stoke-on-Trent is perhaps a great case study for place branding. Like every other city in the world it grew from a group of villages and towns that gradually merged to form a city. Despite officially becoming a city in 1810, the ‘six potteries towns’ still stubbornly hold onto their separate identities to the extent that many local people will deny being from Stoke-on-Trent, identifying instead with the ‘town’ within the urban fabric where they live. The City Centre, where the main retail cluster and bus station sit, is still referred to locally as Hanley.
“The ‘six potteries towns’ still stubbornly hold onto their separate identities to the extent that many local people will deny being from Stoke-on-Trent, identifying instead with the ‘town’ within the urban fabric where they live.”
This identity crisis remains a challenge in attracting investment, marketing the place, achieving consensus about development, and raising standards. I worked with some great people in Stoke-on-Trent and continue to keep an eye on regeneration in the city. I learned a great deal in my time there including the importance of inclusion and ‘doing it anyway’.
The IPM is structured in SIGs (Making Places, Managing Places, Marketing Places & Responsible Tourism), organizes Study Trips (next one in May 2017 to Cassino & Naples, Italy) & conferences (“Inclusive Placemaking” in September 2017) and offers professional qualifications (MSc in Place Management and Leadership). What do you think we have to offer to people like you? What do you expect from the IPM and what can you contribute?
Jean Ball: The IPM offers me access to research and niche experts as well as a supportive community of peers. My membership of the IPM adds credibility to my CV and the ongoing CPD requirement ensures I keep up to date.
I would like to think that part of what I offer the IPM is my experience of life ‘at the cliff face’ so to speak. I am not an academic, I am a practitioner rooted in real day to day experience of bringing people and places together to achieve their potential.
The intreview was conducted by Ares Kalandides