So it seems certain that Leeds will get an Arena.
An important gap in our cultural birthright (the right to see middle-sized events that are not big enough for large stadiums but too big for 3000 seater venues, without having to travel 40 miles) will be plugged.
The city will have an ‘Arena sized’ ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ engine like most other large northern cities. We will no longer be different. We will have ‘caught up’. Good for us! The timing is interesting. Leeds seems to be getting dangerously late into the ‘large events’ market.
Never again will the cry be heard ‘I have to leave Leeds for a city with an Arena’. Another hole through which Leeds talent escapes will be forever filled. Currently we lose too much talent to the south and west because of the ease with which one can take in a James Blunt gig in those places.
We want Leeds to develop an identity? Let’s give it an iconic arena! Perhaps one that changes colour? A place where we can go and view ‘talent’ when it briefly visits our city because of the economic upsides on offer. Now THERE is a plan.
But perhaps I am pre-judging. Perhaps the Arena will have coherent and resourced plans to provide Leeds with an affordable showcase for its own talent as well. Perhaps it will have a meaningful programme of community engagement. Perhaps it will become an asset for all of the city and not just those parts that can afford to pay?
I am not sure quite what the funding cocktail is for the latest plans for the arena. Back in May it was just shy of £10m of Govt money in a £55m project. I am not sure how much the council is putting in the pot. Or how much will come from private investors. I can’t find much about it on the web. But it seems now that the project has become an £80m investment. [Just been told that the Yorkshire Post is today running a story that says all £80m is coming from public sector purse. £70m from Leeds City Council, £10m from Treasury].
That is a lot of investment. And it will demand a return. Clearly the investors believe they will see real financial gains from their investments. They plan to be beneficiaries of the project. And the public sector will rub its hands with glee at the increased GVA in the city. And we can always rely on ‘trickle down‘ to ensure that we will all benefit from the redistribution of wealth that the new Arena will trigger. Can’t we? It is a part of an economic development strategy that says we can spend our way to a better future.
The developers, planners, architects and builders too will surely gain. It is their raison d’etre to profit from this sort of project.
And for a couple of years we will create a few hundred jobs for builders, surveyors and other trades while the Arena is built. And once it is in place there will no doubt be opportunities in Arena Management, retail and box-office.
And there will be a supply chain too who will benefit, Promoters, record labels and their artists, Marketing and Branding agencies, printers and franchise holders, maintenance workers and so on.
But it will not be a major employer in the city. And most of the long terms jobs available to locals will be low skill and low wage, stewarding, ticketing, concierge and retail.
Of course it will be a major economic player. It has to be. It will have to suck up hundreds of thousands of pounds every week in ticket sales. It will have to be branded and hyped. My vote would be for ‘The Marks and Spencer’ Arena to reflect Leeds noble retail heritage. Hundreds of thousands of pounds that, yes, will pay wage bills, will pay for a supply chain and will provide a return to investors and managers. It will be fascinating to see how much of the cash hoovered up by the Arena will actually be retained in the city. My guess is that much of it will leave the Leeds economy.
The SMG group have the gig to manage the arena (they also manage the MEN Arena and many others all over Europe). It will be fascinating to see the kind of programme they can put together and the interest that they show in engaging with local developing talent.
And what will the impact of the new Arena be on other venues? Well clearly Sheffield and Harrogate believe they will feel the pinch. Although Manchester seems quietly confident that their suite of arenas will remain untroubled by the new kid on the block. But what about other Leeds venues? Any way that The Academy, The Cockpit, The Refectory, The Brudenell etc will benefit? I suspect that the Academy may lose market share to the Arena. But most of the other venues serve very different audiences and I remain optimistic that they will be relatively untroubled by the Arena. But will there be any upsides for other Leeds venues?
I think it is interesting that the Arena Showreel chooses to walk you through a boxing promotion. And it is very strange to see a boxing ring with an audience on just three sides! That is a brave design feature. A three sided arena. More intimate perhaps. Certainly different. But will the large shows designed for four sided arenas come to it? I am thinking Monster Trucks, WWE and the like?
I guess we can anticipate boxing, comedy, pop, rock, classical, opera, fashion and many more event genres using the Arena. And I would be interested to see how the Arena will actually benefit each of those circuits that are already embedded in the local economy. Will having a large boxing venue drive a renaissance in Leeds Boxing? Ditto opera, comedy, fashion and so on. Will the dream of playing a Leeds Arena provide additional drive and ambition in the city? Or will the Arena take market share from these sectors leaving many of the incumbents struggling further. Will ‘Arena Opera’ coming to the city be a boon for Opera North or a threat?
What will the impact of a development like the Arena be on ‘fairness’ in the city. On social justice? On the inequalities in wealth and health that exist in our city? Will it make Leeds a more equitable city? Or will it be an asset for those with disposable income that will only serve to widen the gap?
Will it provide a boom in the production of ‘culture’ in the city or in consumption of culture being sold to the city?
What will the impact be of pulling the centre of the city further north? How will it impact on land values and uses? Will local estates become more, or less desirable places to live in the shadow of the Arena? What will the impact be on traffic flows? What will those who arrive by train and walk up to the Arena make of their engagement with our city. No doubt the city centre bars will find them to be yet another lucrative market to target. I wonder just where the touts and the merchandise vendors will set up their pitches?
Of course the Arena will be a mixed blessing. There will be winners and losers.
My best guess is that most of the winners will be in the business community and those with significant disposable income. And the losers will be those for whom a £10m public investment may have been used to provide well considered and long term processes of community based economic development. Providing community groups and local residents with the resources that they need to build their own economies, cultures and communities.
I am not against the Arena. But neither am I for it. What I am against is the continuing massive investment in the built infrastructure in the city that seems to imply if we can just get the right buildings in the right place we will get progress in our very wonderful city. We won’t.
The most successful examples…[of economic and community development]…result not from top-down policies imposed by local governments but from organic, bottom-up, community based efforts. While…government and business leaders pressed for big government solutions – new stadiums and convention centres – the city’s real turnaround was driven by community groups and citizen-led initiatives. Community groups, local foundations and non-profits – not city hall or business led economic development groups – drove…transformation, playing a key role in stabilising and strengthening neighbourhoods…Many of…(the) best neighbourhoods…are ones that were somehow spared from the wrath of urban renewal…Richard Florida – The Great Reset