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Thursday, 02 October 2014

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Centre of attention

KATE Hilton, development manager of Cockermouth’s Kirkgate centre, is a little embarrassed at having almost £500,000 to spend at a time when arts organisations and other publicly-funded organisations are tightening their belts.

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HERE’S TO THE FUTURE: Arts workers celebrating at the Kirkgate Centre in Cockermouth are, from left, Steph Cribbs, Jocelyn West, Kate Hilton and Bob Pritchard

The Kirkgate, a converted school, is in the money because of a successful bid to the Big Lottery’s Reaching Communities programme which “funds projects that help people and communities most in need”.

It couldn’t have come at a better time; until now the Kirkgate has survived on a shoestring budget and unpredictable sources of funding. It is not a regular client of Arts Council England and Allerdale council’s financial support was always unpredictable. Last year Allerdale slashed its entire arts budget and the Kirkgate’s income took a dangerous dip. But now the centre will have financial security for five years, something it has never experienced in its 16-year history.

Its function will also change as it develops into a broader community centre while retaining its role as a much-used local arts venue.

For most of its life, the Kirkgate has operated as a small arts centre, with a 125-seat auditorium. It has staged a variety of events, including gigs, films and plays, and hosted various local groups. But its role began to change on November 19, 2009, the day of the Cockermouth flood.

“We soon realised the Kirkgate could help people in the immediate aftermath of the floods and then in the recovery period beyond,” said Kate. “We arranged a series of five social events, paid for by the Flood Recovery Fund, for those affected.

“The first was run just a week after the floods and was very successful – and people just kept coming.

“The Kirkgate was somewhere they could come and meet their friends and neighbours. Feedback, at first anecdotal but later based on formal interviews, showed that people really valued that opportunity to talk to each other, have a drink and forget about the horrible experience they were going through.”

That was when Kate and her small team realised the Kirkgate had the potential to evolve into a community hub. Arts activity would not be cut but it was clear that the Kirkgate could do more.

Research showed it was not attracting many young people and did not cater much for children or older people either. But with the enthusiastic support of the centre’s 90 volunteers (a huge asset for an organisation run by part-time staff) it could expand and reach out to new audiences. But that would need money.

In February 2010, Kate went to a surgery staged in Cockermouth by the Big Lottery and staff pointed her towards the Reaching Communities programme.

First she produced an outline proposal, which the Lottery agreed had funding potential and led to an invitation to take part in a second stage.

“They told us we had six months to put in a full application – which had just a 20 per cent chance of success. I’d made a Lottery application once before and vowed that I would never do another because it’s an extremely difficult process.

“I wouldn’t have done it again if I didn’t believe totally in what the Kirkgate does.”

Faith and hours of labour on the forms paid off. Late in December last year, the Kirkgate received the Christmas present it had been hoping for, an award of £492,552, which will be spent on weekly arts and drama groups for 11 to 16-year-olds, dance and drama shows, after-school film clubs, holiday drama workshops for teenagers, daytime films, puppet theatre shows and daytime jazz events, plus regular social activities for older people including bingo, tea dances and memorabilia sessions.

“We will be consulting with people to find out in more detail what they want,” added Kate. “We want to bring young people off the streets and into the Kirkgate.

“We will continue to help flood victims to stay in contact with each other. Some of them are living with the prospect of the floods happening again.”

The second aim will be to attract more young people, help them expand their view of the world, and perhaps direct them towards arts-related jobs; the third will be to encourage even more volunteers and help them develop new skills; the fourth will be to give support to local not-for-profit groups of all kinds; and the fifth is about engaging Cockermouth residents in activities and community events at the centre.

“Much of this is about helping people to get involved in meaningful and sociable activities. It’s not rocket science – if you get involved in things you will generally be happier and more fulfilled than if you sit at home by yourself.

“So part of the money will be used to employ a community engagement officer and also to hire arts workers for particular sessions.

“For five years we will be in a very secure position and will be able to focus on delivering more activities for more people. And we won’t have to spend time on a succession of time-consuming funding applications.”

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