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May 26 2012

Tracey Emin's hope for Margate resurrection as seaside town wins grant aid

Tracey Emin's show at the new Turner Contemporary gallery is the latest boost for ailing resort

Any seaside town worth its salt can be found in high spirits when the weather is hot, but Margate has more than one reason to rejoice this weekend.

The ailing resort's most famous daughter, artist Tracey Emin – freshly anointed as the local Olympic torch-bearer – has returned to open her first show at the pristine Turner Contemporary gallery on the seafront.

And, what is more, news has just broken that Margate will receive an extra government grant of £100,000 as one of retail guru Mary Portas's 12 pilot towns targeted for regeneration.

"It is brilliant," said Emin on hearing of the grant as she cut the ribbon on a new sweet shop in the hip Old Town quarter. "At first I thought we hadn't got the money when I heard Wolverhampton had won, but I am delighted. I want it to put Margate back on the map. It is badly needed because the town is in a tragic state."

If Brighton was once memorably described as a place "permanently helping the police with their inquiries", then much of Margate still looks as if it is on weekend release from a custodial sentence. Up the hill from the Old Town and the sparkling art gallery, the Cliftonville district remains crumbling and impoverished. Boarded up guesthouses and dingy hostels dominate.

"Anything that the middle of Margate needs, then Cliftonville needs it 10 times as much," admitted Emin.

But help may be at hand for Cliftonville, too, as the desolate Dalby Square has been earmarked for a £2m lottery-funded renovation.

"The benefits of the new gallery more or less stop any farther up the road from here," said Penny Ragozzino of the trendy Fort Café on the way to Cliftonville. "But we opened up here in October because of the gallery and our trade has been steadily growing. Lots of people from London are buying up cheap houses in Cliftonville now. It is phenomenal the number of new businesses that have started. There is a fantastic spirit here now."

Tawdry seaside towns in economic need are not rare in Britain, but what is rare is the positive impact of Turner Contemporary. In its first year it exceeded all hopes for visitor numbers, attracting half a million.

Speaking to Margate people and celebrity guests including Jerry Hall when her show opened on Friday night, Emin praised the local authority for giving the gallery free admission. "It has such a great knock-on effect," she said.

To win over those the artist described as "cynics" she wrote to each surrounding household, inviting them to see her show. The ploy has worked, with attitudes to Emin and the show generally much warmer than those of sceptical art critics.

"Tracey has made a difference and is popular here in Margate," said Margate-man Will Allsop. "It is a good beginning."

The gallery, too, has provided a focus for artistic regeneration and, as Emin pointed out, it has a secondary status as a shelter from the wind. "It is a free warm on a cold day," agreed Sarah Vickery of the town's Shell Grotto. "And it is clearly a good thing, but given that they spent £25m on it you would hope it did have some impact."

Vickery, who is campaigning for the redevelopment of the Dreamland amusement park, has watched several attempts at regeneration. While artists initially failed to move into expensive units in the Old Town, they are now colonising the cheaper area behind it. "You can't hothouse these things and just ship artists in, but the gallery has been a shot in the arm — although much of the effect so far is corralled around the gallery."

Vickery's partner, Colin Barber, who runs a vintage clothing store, highlights the lack of jobs for the high numbers of homeless Londoners and immigrants who are rehoused in Cliftonville.

Vickery agrees: "People always say Margate is so different to Ramsgate and Broadstairs. It is so edgy. But what they mean is it is rough."

Certainly it is a town that shouts out. Along the seafront, garish signs proclaim "Margate: the original seaside", "Café C Loves Tracey" or "There is no Such thing as the Dog Poo Fairy", while outside Primark a bare-chested youth with a beer in his hand calls out for passersby to admire his body. None of it is very far from the raw sentiments expressed by Emin inside the nearby gallery in her neon lights and blue paint.

Margate, loved by Turner as the home of great sunsets and of his mistress Mrs Booth, has its own kind of avant garde vibe. It is the sort of place you can overhear a discussion about whether or not dying your hair pink is a good idea when you are sunburnt, accompanied by a salty chuckle to rival Emin's own. So it seems natural that she should be chosen to carry the Olympic torch this summer. Whether she can also single-handedly deliver the future Margate is calling out for seems unlikely.

Her arrival on Friday was heralded by the descent of hundreds of international media and tourists to boost local retail sales, but she knows it is not enough and regularly calls for the reopening of Margate's caves, and the speedy redevelopment of the defunct amusement park.

Aptly, Turner Contemporary stands next to the town's lifeboat station, dwarfing its proportions, but it cannot rescue the town on its own, despite the high cost of its construction.

Time will tell if this marks the beginning of a boom for the seaside resort or just another of many ill-fated waves of optimism. As Emin told her guests on Friday night: "The last decades have not been at all kind to Margate, so it surely cannot get any worse."


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March 26 2012

Towns clamour to become a Portas pilot

Hundreds of towns are bidding for the funding that will help regenerate their high streets

Large numbers of towns, including many in the north, are vying to become Portas pilots to help rejuvenate struggling high streets.

The 12 chosen towns will share more than £1m of funding and receive advice from the retail guru Mary Portas. It is expected that hundreds of applications will be received before Friday's deadline.

The government said the high streets and town centres are facing "serious challenges from out-of-town shopping centres and the internet."

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of town stores fell by almost 15,000 and there have been further losses since then.

The government argues that high streets are recognised as important hubs of social interaction and cohesion, as well as providers of local jobs. They're a visible indicator of how well, or how badly, a local economy is doing.

The Portas Review, published in December, set out what she thought had led to the decline of the high street and made 28 recommendations about what could be done "to breathe life back into them." She said many high streets had reached crisis point.

Among the recommendations are "town teams" to champion local high streets, business rate concessions for entrepreneurs and penalties for negligent landlords. Portas also urged that betting shops have their own planning classification so their numbers could be monitored more closely.

Among the bidders for the Portas Pilot funding are Lincoln and Market Rasen in Lincolnshire and Rawtenstall north of Manchester and Altrincham south of the city.

On the Wirral, Hoylake is among the bidders along with the seaside town of Crosby in Merseyside, where Antony Gormley's Another Place statues gaze across the sands.

Further north and east, Morpeth in Northumberland is one of the towns that is putting in a bid for the funding.

During a recent visit to Rawtenstall, minister for housing and local government Grant Shapps praised it for its 'unique' high street.

Events have been held, supported by the Association of Town Centre Management, to help towns prepare bids.

Martin Blackwell, chief executive of the ATCM, told The Grocer the government also wanted to ensure those who missed out on pilot funding were not left behind.

"I can't remember anything like it," he said of the level of response. "But of those 300, only 12 are going to get funding and we don't want the other 288 left alienated."

Bids in Cumbria have come from Penrith and Whitehaven. Alan Blacklock, the Whitehaven Chamber of Trade secretary said in an interview with the Whitehaven News: "I would like to think we could get into the top 12, but there are so many other towns in the same boat as us it will no doubt be very competitive." He added that their aim is for Whitehaven to become a better place to visit and shop.

Preston, too, which is celebrating its Guild this year with a programme of cultural events, has joined the bidders.

Mick Lovatt, environment director at the city council in Preston said it had already drawn up plans for further improvement to the city centre which a successful bid could kick-start.

"If we can get this funding," he told the Lancashire Evening Post, "it will allow us to do a lot of the things we want to do with the city centre." He said they are already looking at ways they can work with landlords to dress some of the empty shop units and improve the look of the main shopping areas.

In Lancashire, Chorley, Kirkham and Morecambe have also applied for the pilot status.


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